Party Politics in the 2013 Election

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What is especially interesting about fall 2013? We are going to elect the German Bundestag and state parliament of Hessen on September 22, and the state parliament of Bavaria on September 15. For both dates, one cannot rule out changes in government, though a complete change of power is within the range of possibilities only in Hessen. In Berlin and Munich we could possibly expect new coalitions, and Bavaria draws special attention as the second-largest state. It produces the highest and most stable election outcomes for Angela Merkel’s conservative parties and the Bavarian vote is generally the base of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) / Christian Social Union (CSU) formation in Berlin. This will be the source of contention for this fall’s elections.

Constitutional Significance

In liberal democracies, elections determine political power. They are embedded in a permanent, pluralist process of political competition based on the principle of equal opportunities for all parties. That is the opposite of a monopoly, a structure the Germans experienced in the GDR. Power did not originate from the people but from the historic mission of the working class: the party. Elections counted as a “basic form of asserting social democracy.” Rather than determining governance, they were meant to legitimize it.

Governance in the liberal democracy means individuals holding political office are limited by time and legal regulations. The execution of this position is meant to consider everyone’s—not the party’s—well-being. Consequently, office-holders must orient themselves toward the common good and practice self-discipline, an apparently difficult task. Elections empower pluralism, but they surely do not cease competition or competitiveness.

How Intense is the Competition?

As is widely known, pluralism does not function without a widely accepted consensus on the constitution. In Germany, there is no conflict over human rights and freedom, over democracy, or over the basic socio-political role of the state. The welfare state principle is secured by the Basic Law and is a pillar of German democracy. A high standard of political and social satisfaction remains not only in theory, but also in practice. Basic opposition toward the system exists only in small extremist margins. Germany has long maintained a high-consensus system without any relevant, groundbreaking conflicts.

Nevertheless, we face an evolving gap between our society and party system. Does this contradict the principle of consensus? Certainly not. The lack of basic conflicts opens the opportunity to unfold individual interests, topics, and ways of life. For the same reason, social levels and classes do not determine election outcomes—they derive from sentiments constructed by prosperity, social security, and social comfort.

In the same way, the elections in 2013 will show that social structure-based criteria will not be of much relevance. Two examples: Even though two-thirds of trade union-oriented employers voted for the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in 2009, their share of votes still makes up only 10 percent. Likewise, 75 percent of church-going Catholics voted for the CDU/CSU. Their share of the total number of votes: only 10 percent as well. Neither labor nor Christian groups are strong enough to carry a large party. Accordingly, SPD candidate Peer Steinbrück acknowledged that the SPD cannot rely solely on trade unions for support, but his party will not win the election without them. The same applies to the conservative parties and their support among Catholics and decided Christians.

This means success in the elections depends on the mobilization of voters on the periphery rather than the core. While both parties have to draw 90 percent of their total votes from other demographics, they also will not succeed without their core voters. Depending on whether they can secure their faithful voters, slight shifts of 1.5 or 2 percent may determine decisions over who will lead the government or play the role of the opposition. This applies to the large parties. This contradiction between the traditional base and the modern voter, oriented toward the economic situation, open for world change, and volatile—even fleeting—has been challenging the CDU/CSU and the SPD for decades and now again in this election year.

What are some examples? Germany owes a considerable amount of its present bright economic situation to the reform policies of SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Back then, it succeeded, despite opposition from trade unions, which eventually led to the separation of the left-labor fraction of the party and to issues in the voter market. In 2013, the SPD is running with a top candidate, who stands for Schröder’s policies. Simultaneously, a union leader is running as the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry candidate and is fighting these policies. This is a contradiction, not a balance: the union trade leader embodies the 10 percent—the indispensable base—and the top candidate stands for the 90 percent—the modern voters.

On the other hand, Angela Merkel is not doing anything to support or shape her party’s traditional base. Apparently she is assuming that these voters do not have any other option than the CDU/CSU—that is, besides staying home on Election Day, a decision that could be painful enough to encourage conservative politicians to prevent it. In the SPD’s case, the alternative would be the Left Party, which has such prominent leadership figures as Gregor Gysi. The CDU/CSU traditional base lacks this leadership figure. There are, however, fractions within the party—conservatives, Catholics, and middle class or business people who are rather powerless and marginalized vis-à-vis the dominance of the Chancellor. In the public realm, the CDU/CSU oppose neither value shifts, such as gay marriage, nor socio-political overreaching The media has talked about the social-democratization of the conservative parties. Merkel’s question is not, how do I secure the 10 percent core voters, but, how can I draw in the mobilized, non-traditional voters?

This is reflected in the current situation marking the beginning of the election campaigns. To some voters, the SPD possesses an overwhelming, indestructible competence: social justice. What does Merkel do? She promises a minimum wage, rent-regulation, increased pensions for mothers, and increased child benefits. In effect, she is taking the topics of the SPD without mentioning the term “social justice.” Her announcements amount to €30 billion, without an explanation on how to finance them. Simultaneously, she holds on to the priority of consolidating the federal budget. Is this a contradiction? Or are these just two tactical offers to the core 10 percent and other 90 percent?

The contradictions of both large parties—the Union and the SPD—are a consequence of shifts in the economy and society: the priority of individualism, the short-term view, and dependence on perception. Whoever would like to remain “large” has to go beyond the boundaries of their traditional orientations, since their response within society has become a minority. Jürgen Habermas recently labeled it as Angela Merkel’s “opinion poll-oriented opportunism.” But is this criticism? Does this not address both large parties? Or is this not actually a success-oriented adaptation to a changing, non-traditional voter base that will decide the parties’ fates? There are not many plausible alternatives; the SPD would become a trade union party and the CDU/CSU both  Christian parties. Both could, maybe, count on  around 15  percent of the vote.

The Catch-all Party: Victim of the Orientation Shift?

Generally, it is beneficial to hold on to the increasingly anachronistic demand for pragmatically-oriented “catch-all parties.” It serves the representation of a wider spectrum of interests and orientations or at least makes us assume so. As in the past, the other approach remains the option for smaller and mid-sized parties in 2013.

These parties signify, virtually, the orientation shift in society, moving away from the old social structural criteria. They have long since been gaining in popularity while catch-all parties have been decreasing in representation for four decades. This shift in orientation demands that politics project a more extensive expression of individuals’ personal goals and lifestyle, and it is already strong enough to open parliaments’ doors to new parties.

The classic example of this is the Free Democratic Party (FDP), a party of liberal, middle-class, individualist, and state-regulated citizenship. It is a group established as a party, but never a catch-all party.

The “new” is represented by the Greens as an expression of ecologically-minded voters and participatory lifestyle. After entering the Bundestag in the 1980s, they will be the third-strongest force in the Bundestag in 2013. They are similarly well represented in state parliaments.  Representatives of a political generation and its lifestyle, rooted in the 1970s and 1980s, they still primarily stand for ecological issues and the socio-political “left.”

In the 1990s, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS)―now The Left―began representing what can be clearly seen as the social interest of a significant part of East German voters. In the former GDR states, the Left is as strong as the CDU and SPD, but in western Germany the party is nearly meaningless. Its popularity is driven by its efforts for social equality of eastern Germany.

The Pirate Party has made it into four state parliaments out of nowhere—with moderate political competences. It is the party of the Internet generation lifestyle, lacking professional access to institutions and procedures of representative democracy.

Another new party is skeptical of the euro. It has the chance of being elected to the Bundestag this fall, although not in Bavaria, where the CSU itself maintains an obvious distance toward European institutions.

Other than the FDP, all these parties address specific, circumstantial, and generational issues that are not focal points to the catch-all parties—ecology, social challenges of reunification, “liquid democracy,” and the euro crisis. As parties of specific political generations and their experiences they garnish their “brand core” rather incidentally with additional topics and competencies—or pseudo-competencies. Unlike the two large parties that represent general interests by maximizing the issues and social spectrum they cover, these parties basically do not pursue a comprehensive, coordinated offering across all political fields. The appeal of the comprehensive party platforms espoused by the large parties used to be typical of certain generations—typical of the founding and consolidating generations of the Federal Republic that faced basic challenges and broad alternatives. Their accomplishments have created the opportunity for more focused orientations and topics, specifications that do not question the basic consensus in the core, but do cultivate the political competition with alternatives. Election outcomes support this dynamic.

Issues in Election Year 2013

Large Party Politics: This is a socio-political performance competition between the CDU/CSU and the SPD with almost interchangeable but generally unrealistic offers. The majority of voters shows a positive response but do not believe in their realization.

Fiscal Policy: In this context, the debate is about state revenue, the fiscal system, burden or relief for citizens, redistribution from top-to-bottom, property and estate tax, economic favoritism for marriage and family, and the fiscal system as a tool for public policy. Here, there is a clear confrontation between the CDU/CSU on the one hand, and the Greens and left wing of the SPD on the other. For the Liberals, this is a profile issue: self-determination of the individual, development of the middle class, limiting of state control.

Environmental Policy: Protecting the environment marks the third topic with a general consensus, especially since the Fukushima disaster and the following shift in energy policy. The Greens will focus on this topic, since they are said to be the most competent in this field. But it will not make them stand out any longer. The skepticism over a rational pathway after the Japanese crisis will not play an important role in the campaigns.

Finance Policy: The traditional parties would like to avoid a discussion about the euro crisis to prevent further distraction from the idea of European integration. The distinction between the euro zone and the European Union overstrains the voter and apparently the political leadership as well. Yet, this exemplifies this cycle’s increased mobility. There is a new party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), that keeps addressing this issue and receives quite a lot of resonance―an accomplishment that could open the door to the Bundestag, despite a lack of political professionalism.

Foreign Policy: Elections are never decided over foreign policy issues—this includes 2013. Distinct differences are not in sight. In the military realm, Germany has been quite inactive and has not been available for interventions in Libya or Syria. The visit of President Li in Berlin has underlined the common interest in the German-Chinese relationship and highlighted Merkel’s prestige as an actor on the European and global stage. The meeting was an invaluable campaign advertisement reinforcing positive economic expectations.

How Will the Election End?

There is no sentiment of change in Germany. Also, public awareness of the election campaign is still limited That helps Merkel. The opposition apparently struggles to gain resonance, and polls show hardly any movement.

The CDU and CSU will hold on to their dominance as leading parties in Berlin and Munich, and the CSU benefits from Bavaria’s tremendous accomplishment of modernization over the last centuries, having transformed an agricultural state into a high-tech state. It will take on leadership positions in all sectors, including the labor market, economics, finance, and education. The only question is whether the CSU will need a coalition partner or will win outright the majority of seats in Bavaria’s state parliament.

In Berlin, Merkel faces the question of finding a coalition partner: continue with the Liberals, re-engage in a grand coalition with the SPD, or experiment with Black-Green (CDU/CSU-Green coalition)? In any case, a coalition in Berlin without the CDU is unlikely, and in Bavaria, it seems impossible without the CSU.

A lot depends on how many of the smaller parties will move into parliament and whether the FDP will once again reach the 5 percent hurdle.

All indications point toward a continuation of the CDU/CSU, SPD, Greens, FDP, and Left constellation. Will the Pirates and the AfD join? From the present perspective, it is unlikely. The movement is up to the party system and the voters, but the latter always decide later whether they will even vote and, if so, for whom.

Therefore, a certain amount of ambiguity remains over the election year of 2013 in Germany.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.