After the German Elections: A Diminished Future

Dieter Dettke

Georgetown University

Dr. Dieter Dettke is a Non-Resident Fellow at AICGS and Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University.

Dr. Dettke served as the U.S. Representative and Executive Director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Washington from 1985 until 2006 managing a comprehensive program of transatlantic cooperation. In 2006, he joined the German Marshall Fund of the United States as a Transatlantic Fellow and from September 2006 to June 2007, he was a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His most recent book is “Germany Says ‘No’: The Iraq War and the Future of German Foreign and Security Policy,” published by theWoodrow Wilson Center Press and The Johns Hopkins University Press, Washington, DC, and Baltimore, 2009.

Dr. Dettke is a foreign and security policy specialist, author and editor of numerous publications on German, European, and U.S. foreign and security issues.

He studied Law and Political Science in Bonn and Berlin, Germany, and Strasbourg, France and was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1967/68.

On Election Day in Germany, German voters will have little to decide in terms of substance. The best one can expect is a ratification of the status quo. Change is not in the air. On the contrary, Germany lost clout abroad by remaining on the sidelines of almost every international issue, with the exception of the euro zone debt crisis. In this case, as a geo-economic power, Germany tried its best to impose the German economic model on its European partners.

Yet, the German model itself needs repair and cannot serve as a cure-all. The lack of a long term investment strategy is an important weakness, but the country still excels in high end manufacturing―its crucial foundation as an industrial country. However, energy policy ambitions and the firm commitment to end all reliance on nuclear energy are on collision course with this manufacturing future. The ambitious objectives for reducing carbon-dioxide emissions will collide with the market needs of the flagship of German industry: the automotive industry.

Chancellor Merkel often quotes three European statistics in her speeches: 7 percent of world population, 20 percent of the world gross domestic product, and 50 percent of all social spending. Europe needs structural reforms in order to keep the European economic model sustainable. Budget discipline is necessary, but it cannot be the only answer to the challenge the European project faces. Yet, there is no single German initiative promising to reform the European Union not only institutionally, but also in terms of its future policy direction. Passivity in face of major challenges of nationalism and separatism is not enough―in particular in view of the 2014 European elections.

The current governing coalition of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU)/Christian Social Union (CSU) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) will―in all likelihood―eke out a narrow “victory.” If the numbers turn out to be sufficient for a renewal of a “mandate” for black and yellow, the pressure will be high to stay the course. All the two coalition partners need is an electoral result of 6 percent or more for the FDP and 40 percent or more for the CDU and the CSU nation wide. This would allow the two sister parties to create a parliamentary group and, with the help of the FDP, put together a “Chancellor Majority” in order to elect Angela Merkel as the next Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. The current 598 seats in the Bundestag, not counting 300 votes, will be sufficient for the re-election of Angela Merkel.

From the beginning of her election campaign, the Chancellor has used “asymmetric demobilization” as the key ingredient of her electoral strategy. This means the goal is to keep the opposition home on Election Day and make sure that as many Merkel voters as possible feel energized enough to go to the polls. The Chancellor is not looking for a fight to win. She needs to keep things calm and quiet, and she has done so very successfully―so successfully that the elections appear almost superfluous. Although, almost superfluous should not be misinterpreted as useless. Continuity, too, needs to be renewed and reconfirmed with a new mandate, and this kind of new mandate of calm with reduced ambitions Chancellor Merkel will definitely receive.

On September 15, a week before the national elections, Bavarian voters will have a chance to express their will. There is no realistic chance for the opposition to unseat the current CSU Minister President Horst Seehofer, who is very popular despite a good number of scandals during his re-election. The CSU is looking forward to regaining the absolute majority in the Bavarian Parliament that it used to have in the past. In order to give CDU voters a reason to go to the polls, Merkel has maintained that she is not a “shoo-in.” In theory, she is right. Although, the mathematically possible coalitions against her have been reduced to almost zero since The Left Party continues to remain incapable of governing on the national level, excluding a possible red-red-green coalition.

For lack of more substantive issues to discuss, Merkel revived the specter of such a red-red-green coalition as a possible electoral outcome if voters do not cast their votes for her. The only other possibility to unseat Angela Merkel would be a so-called “traffic light coalition” of SPD, the Greens, and the FDP. But even such a three party coalition is out of reach, assuming the election results on September 22 mirror current public opinion surveys by the Forschungsgruppe Wahlen. With the SPD at 20 percent, the Greens somewhat weaker at 10 percent, and the FDP at 6 percent, it would simply not be enough. Plus, a traffic light coalition would be highly unstable. In particular, when it comes to decisions on taxes, a traffic light coalition would quickly stumble on financial and budgetary issues. That hindrance makes the political constellation unfit for government. It is also a coalition that few Germans seem to like.

People prefer―and public opinion surveys confirm this―a grand coalition of SPD and CDU/CSU. However, a grand coalition is also a political constellation that party leaders in both the SPD and Union do not like―except for Chancellor Merkel. She would even prefer a grand coalition over the current CDU/CSU-FDP coalition. In theory, Angela Merkel could try to put together a coalition with the Green Party, and the numbers would work, assuming that the Greens are likely to end up with around 10 percent―if not even more. Together with the 40 percent or more that Merkel can count on, the opportunity to change the political culture of Germany is there.

With her decision to opt out of nuclear energy by 2020, a common political platform, based on an even stronger renewable energy policy program, would open up. Yet, the tensions between a black-green coalition government and German business would be enormous. The Green Party’s rank and file would fear losing their identity in such a coalition. Experiences with black-green coalitions on the state level have been extremely negative. In Hamburg and also the Saarland, black-green coalitions collapsed over irreconcilable differences. On the national level, such a coalition would be an absolute novum and difficult to manage with no majority in the Bundesrat, Germany’s second, but important legislative chamber. Without a Bundesrat majority Angela Merkel will have difficulties to govern in particular with regard to European issues.

Yet, Europe will be on the top of the agenda after September 22. Merkel’s management of the European debt crisis was quite successful from a German domestic perspective, but on the European level, the result has been austerity and institutional stagnation. Unemployment numbers in the euro zone as well as the European Union at large are now at unsustainable levels, and the German economic model is difficult to transfer to Germany’s European neighbors. Without stronger efforts to preserve Europe as a solidarity community, the European project might well be at risk. Should deepening and widening of the European Union stagnate even further after the German elections, Germany would have a lot to lose, too. As much as the Chancellor cannot opt for policies that might risk overall public support for the European project, the future of Germany would be even more at risk if the European Union would end up in decline and re-nationalization.

Chancellor Merkel’s record is weakest in foreign and security policy. Whereas the red-green coalition under the leadership of Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer―in spite of the “No” to the Iraq war―put Germany on a trajectory of sharing more international responsibility. The country is now on its way to being a “giant Switzerland” without the beneficial impact that the Swiss foreign policy model has as a small country. The geo-economic power that Germany now represents is incompatible with its behavior as a small country unwilling to contribute to the security of others in crises such as Libya and Syria. Germany’s inaction, and frankly its moral decline, will haunt the country in the future. Its lack of ambition is the reason for Europe’s failure to act―just when it is most important to foster the kind of global multilateral action that the country cherished so much in the past.

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