A Party System in Flux

Dieter Roth

University of Heidelberg

Professor Dr. Dieter Roth is a Professor at the Institute of Political Science at the Universität Heidelberg.

Read in German

Coalition governments in Germany have a long tradition, though more so at the federal level (where there have always been coalitions) than at the state level. These two or more party coalitions are as a rule not desired, but are generally forced by the election results or determined by the strength of the political groups after the election. There have been at least three times as many coalition governments (including four minority coalitions at the state level) than absolute majorities at the state level.  The tradition of the two-party coalitions in Germany is now being disrupted by the rise of a third right-wing, populist party, the AfD (Alternative for Germany), which does not present an option for a coalition and demands that the old party elite become much more flexible and willing to change. One could downplay this in the election campaigns, but now the facts on the ground are clear. More three-party coalitions are predicted and with this comes greater uncertainty. After all, the former people’s parties (CDU and SPD) together increasingly represent less than half of the electorate. The much vaunted stability of our party system is gone. This is true now at the state level, which has always been a training ground for coalitions, but will soon also be at the federal level.

The Germans and their elections are dominated in large part by preserving appearances. This applies to the political sphere, where parties and politicians cannot show weakness (as they have reached and divided up too many positions of power). It also applies to the people (voters) who want politicians to be seen as fulfilling their promises even though external circumstances are always changing. Even these ideas have been severely disrupted. In theory, regular elections are the way to check whether elected politicians and the governments they form have fulfilled their tasks.  They are more backward-looking inspection dates and less votes of confidence on future solutions, whose scope and scale are not yet determined. However, voter confidence in the future is based almost exclusively on the experience from the past with a bit of ideological preference for their most favored party. This is true for quiet times.

But the fact is that the external conditions have changed fundamentally. At least the population sees this so. As the large influx of refugees and economic migrants has been deeply unsettling, it is difficult to make clear distinctions. They mostly see the threat to their hard-earned status, safety, and the future of themselves and their children. All this is compounded by the disunity in the position of the government and opposition parties, occasionally also between the state and the federal governments. The media does the rest. Yes, they have to report, but they do not necessarily have to always chase the headlines. This is not an atmosphere in which you want to hold elections. Attention is now fixed on the shortcomings in relation to the preparation of policy and administration to what was a foreseeable crisis. This is a situation in which a new party will succeed with nationalistic, Euro-skeptic themes, but mostly by offering fearmongering and nationalistic rhetoric. For the voters not tied to a particular party, that’s quite a nightmare scenario and this type of voter is becoming more common. This is more significant at the state level than at the federal level, therefore difficult to draw any conclusions, however, they are at least warning shots.

But what does this mean for Berlin?

The CDU has lost painfully, but there is as of yet no threat to Angela Merkel. She has a clear position and the people reward her for it. She is the most powerful force in the Christian Democratic Union, and no one can do without her. Her stance on the refugee issue is supported by the majority of Germans and also the majority of CDU voters. Her following has declined somewhat, but she is still the chancellor of all—deeply ingrained and accepted.

The results of the state elections have revealed the common enemy of the democratic parties, an enemy that has grown due to the disunity over the crisis these past two years: the AfD. They consist of about 70 percent protest votes and have also mobilized non-voters to a great extent. One can debate whether this protest movement is justified. In any case, it is a clear sign to the established parties to take action and close ranks. They must give answers on the big questions that Germany has to deal with, and explain to the people what they must do and why without losing their individuality. The communication between politicians and their electorate has been inadequate. Nonetheless, Germany is a strong country with a strong and thus far solidly-developed party system and will also overcome this crisis.

Translated from German by Parke Nicholson and Susanne Dieper.

Professor Dr. Dieter Roth is a Professor at the Institute of Political Science at the Universität Heidelberg.

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