Image: Markus Spiske/Flickr

  • Historical losses for big parties
  • SPD says will not participate in a renewed “grand coalition”
  • Right-wing populists in the Bundestag for the first time
  • Complicated coalition negotiations expected

The German federal election on September 24th saw historical losses for the traditional ’big’ parties: Chancellor Angela Merkel’s right-centre CDU/CSU and the Social Democrats (SPD). Together, they have formed the “grand coalition” federal government since 2013. On Sunday, the CDU/CSU won just 33% (- 8.5% compared to 2013). The SPD deflated to 20.5% of the popular vote (- 5.2%), its worst result since the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949. 

 Small parties gaining

At the same time, the country’s smaller parties benefitted from voter fatigue with the grand coalition’s perceived consensus-driven middle-of-the-road politics: while the gains of the far-left LINKE (9.2%) and the Greens (8.9%) were fairly small, the liberal FDP came out with 10.7%, one of their best results ever. It is the 12.6% result of the populist right AfD (Alternative for Germany), however, that is nothing short of an earthquake in German federal politics: there has not been a party to the right of the CDU/CSU represented in the Bundestag since the 1950s. Populist politics now seem to have gained a firm foothold in Germany as well – after many years of delay in comparison to most other European countries where right wing populism has been a factor for many years.

Nevertheless, the results pave the way for Angela Merkel to enter her fourth term as the Chancellor of the Federal Republic. Her main challenge will be to form a stable and effective coalition government. With yesterday’s results, only two coalitions would enjoy solid majorities: a continuation of the grand coalition with the SPD and the so-called “Jamaica”coalition (due to the colours of the respective three parties echoing the Jamaican flag) consisting of CDU/CSU, FDP and the Greens.

Coalition options

The most interesting development during the election night, therefore, was the trenchant statements from leading SPD politicians that the SPD will not be available for a continuation of the grand coalition. Rather, the SPD intends to focus on leading the opposition, thus hoping to recoup and rebuild after suffering a devastating blow. That means the only possible government coalition is a coalition of CDU/CSU, FDP and the Greens - a constellation that has seen, at best, mixed results on the state level, never been tried on the federal level and that promises very tough coalition negotiations and a potentially fragile federal government.

The animosities and political differences between the Greens and the FDP alone promise to create significant hurdles for the coming negotiations. An even bigger challenge, however, might lurk in Bavaria: the CSU (the CDU’s Bavarian sister party) also suffered a severe blow and is likely to refocus on a hard-line conservative stance in order to reclaim voter territory that has now been occupied by the AfD. It is hard to see how such a positioning could possibly be brought in alignment with the FDP and the Greens, two parties that traditionally hold liberal views on social issues, internal security and immigration. Energy and climate policy is just one additional example of areas in which consensus will be hard to come by among these parties.

Uncertainty ahead

Angela Merkel’s pragmatic, non-ideological leadership in an age of extremist politics has been and continues to be popular among many voters at home and many observers abroad. Most would agree that she “has provided consistent leadership in European integration, compassion toward refugees, liberal democracy and Western values” as the New York Times recently put it. However, many fault her for having created room on the right through her handling of the refugee crisis and her progressive positions in many areas that have traditionally been represented by parties in the centre-left, not by the conservatives (some have called this the “social-democratisation of the CDU”). The AfD’s strong showing in the election combined with the severe losses suffered by the CDU/CSU and the SPD – Germany’s quintessential political establishment – are seen as drastic warning signals by many inside and outside her political base.

The foundation Angela Merkel has been given in yesterday’s election is a shaky one. However, it is unlikely that she will change her style after 12 years at the helm. It can be assumed that she will attempt to convey the impression of steadfastness and will enter coalition talks with the FDP and the Greens. Given the Federal Republic’s tradition of constructive politics and Angela Merkel’s pragmatism, one would expect that such talks will eventually succeed and result in a new government. At what cost and with which specific policy results remains to be seen – it will be crucially important for any organisation concerned to monitor developments closely over the coming weeks and months.

It is unclear what is to be expected should these negotiations not be successful. Will the SPD revert its stated course and enter into a new coalition after all? Not likely. In such a scenario, a snap election might be the only way out, with highly unpredictable results.

But we’re not there yet.

Read Part 2 here.

Ernst Primosch is executive chairman of Hill&Knowlton Strategies Germany. He has been a member of the European Association of Communication Directors since its inception in 2007. A version of this article was originally published on the Hill&Knowlton Strategies website.