The Bundestag Election 2013 as a Historical Break in German Party Competition

Karl-Rudolf Korte

Universität Duisberg-Essen

Prof. Dr. Karl-Rudolf Korte is Professor of Political Science at the Universität Duisberg-Essen, where he focuses on the political system of the Federal Republic of Germany. He is also the Director of the NRW School of Governance.

Germany has voted. The results of September 22, 2013 can be viewed as a historical event in German electoral politics. Ten points characterize this event.This piece is a translation of Karl-Rudolf Korte’s essay published on September 29, 2013 in German on

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1. Angela Merkel won in historic fashion

Until now, only Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl had been reelected three times by a majority in Bundestag elections. This historic accomplishment is strengthened by the fact that she will be the only chancellor to have governed three consecutive terms with three different coalition partners. Even if another grand coalition forms, it will be different from that of 2005. Another surprise was that Merkel just barely missed an absolute majority, which only Adenauer has thus far accomplished, in 1957.

2. Europe decided the election

As none of the established parties had serious, encompassing policies on European politics, the Alternative for Germany’s (AfD) prospects increased. As long as the parties in the middle maintain their traditional thinking regarding Europe, other parties, which are not necessarily anti-Europe, have the chance to develop new positions on the European Union (EU) that argue against European integration. The hollow institutional architecture, democratic deficit, increasing executive decision-making—all of these issues, not only the euro crisis, could have been addressed by the parties.  Regardless of whether they are in parliament, each AfD vote is one less for the government.

Another European issue is just as crucial: on the euro, unified Bundestag action across all parties has shown that the euro area has held together during the crisis. Why, then, would the voters not elect a grand coalition? Europe also creates the campaign atmosphere. Voters were generally unsatisfied, especially in comparison to many other EU member states dealing with the crisis. Finally, Germany is clearly the central actor in Europe, and all other member states are financially dependent on Germany. Merkel dominates through her long-lasting presence alone.

3. A change in government and power was in the air

The chancellor’s popularity combined with discontent with the Black-Yellow government produced an uneasy mood, one that appeared to be indecisive. Yet, the following conclusion can be drawn from this mood: for the first time, the voters deliberately elected a grand coalition. They voted for the protection of their taxes and against the banks.

4. The big got bigger

Historically only four parties, namely the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Left Party, and the Green Party—have been represented in the Bundestag. In 1983, the Green Party was elected to the Bundestag and in 1990, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), now the Left Party, was also elected. As expected, in the 2009 election the larger parties lost votes after the grand coalition of 2005, and the smaller parties experienced great gains. This is to be accepted after a grand coalition. In 2013, the big got bigger. For the first time since 2002, the CDU and the SPD increased their shares of votes, and the decline in the major parties seems to have halted.

5. The system is set up asymmetrically

The so-called bourgeois is now only represented by the Union parties. The three other parties in the Bundestag are smaller and politically to the left. These parties have a statistical majority in parliament. However, after many parties’ outright refusal to partner with the left, especially concerning the perception of their foreign policy as unacceptable, the Left Party cannot be considered in a coalition until the coming 2017 elections. And, if any coalition breeches these promises not to partner with the left, there will be no chancellor’s majority in the Bundestag. The system appears to be vital, robust, and resilient. New parties apparently have a chance, and old parties perish as soon as they no longer depict societal issues.

6. The campaign was shaped by the absence of German objections

Journalists only managed to excite themselves with their coverage of trivial issues. Professional outrage among journalists over data privacy and surveillance had nothing to do with the public. It is true that the central issues did not resonate emotionally or intellectually. Yet, this is not synonymous to boredom. Rather, this can be seen as a conciliatory democracy that is satisfied with itself. The frequent consensus then, often manifests as intellectual inactivity, a product of contentment. This is the conservative aspect characterizing Germany. However, differences between parties were still visible in many aspects, as shown in the Duisburger Wahl Index (DWI).

7. The FDP has lost its role

The election had historic dimensions, because for the first time since 1949, the FDP is no longer represented in the Bundestag. The only functional, market-oriented majority party lost its role when the majority of voters sought a grand coalition or opened up other options for the chancellor to build a coalition, such as, for example, a Black-Green government. Moreover, it has remained unclear what the FDP’s political role would be in the new government—to discipline or to encourage the CDU. The Union is founded in its traditional, conservative norms, and the party is consistently viewed as a state party in surveys. With this leadership style, the CDU does not need political checks, and a clear majority of voters greatly appreciate this agile orientation. Besides, such leadership nearly automatically results in a systematic drain on each coalition partner’s political vitality. The SPD experienced this effect the first time, and now the FDP has suffered the same.

8. Personal trust is the key to coalition-building

Forming a coalition will not occur quickly, especially as the CDU, in hindsight, was too quick in selecting the FDP in 2009. On average, process of building a coalition takes approximately thirty-four days; the 2005 grand coalition required sixty-five days to form. On the surface, this delay is certainly subject to negotiation, because the SPD and Union have extremely dissimilar mandates. On the other hand, the Union needs a chancellor’s majority; so, any agreement must be a win-win for all three parties. An agreement will depend more on the logic of trust and less on the parties’ intersections in content. No significant project in recent years―neither the 2010 agenda, nor the Energiewende, nor suspension of compulsory military service―has been written down in coalition agreements.

There are many advantages to this logic of mutual trust on a personal level, and it does not increase the likelihood of either a grand or a black-green coalition. Because the CDU has lost trust in the Greens’ leadership, a new set of conditions apply to these negotiations. The Green Party leadership will be completely reorganized in a few weeks, and negotiations will bring new and different approaches, which is further supported by the conclusion of campaigning. As the SPD would like to gauge its members’ interest before committing to any agreement, a grand coalition seems less likely than it was four weeks ago. This dynamic is known in the research on political participation; mobilizations are always easier when working toward a specific goal. Should the SPD present a decision for or against the grand coalition to its membership, a rejection seems possible. Professionally, the politics of anticipation has engaged itself in such speculation prematurely. The SPD leadership must adjust its rhetoric to address this reality!

9. Governing with the Bundesrat will prove difficult

On this front, two issues will define the next four years: austerity and the reorganization of Länder finances to comply with recent Karlsruhe rulings. The differences between rich and poor Länder are much more important politically than their respective governing coalitions. In this sense, this does not necessarily rule out a black-green coalition on the grounds of party politics. It would be considered a politically safe coalition among avant-garde federal leaders. New electoral constellations bring about new coalitions; however, this process is never timely. It is more often the case that new coalitions catch up only after the Zeitgeist and distribution of issues has just passed. This applies equally well to the center-left parties as to the black-yellow coalition. It would also apply to a black-green coalition, as eco-social issues have long been mainstream. Sustainability pertains as much to the average voter’s concept of the issues as many facets of a traditionally-oriented Union’s concept of modernity.

10. The Europeanization of party politics  

The AfD nearly reached the threshold, which suggests a further Europeanization of German electoral competition. Across Europe, EU-critical parties have been elected to parliaments―some populist, some extremist. The AfD is not critical of Europe in its platform, but it is critical nonetheless, especially regarding the European crisis mechanism―its core concern.

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