German Elections and Their Effect on Governability

July 24, 2009

Germany faces a series of local, state, European, and federal elections in 2009 that will test the ability of a new six-party system to produce a strong and stable government. This conference examined the potential outcomes of these elections, their impact on foreign policy, and the implications for U.S.-German relations.

Panel 1: The Party Landscape and Prospects for the Federal Election
The first panel gave a review of the major parties, campaign issues, and coalition possibilities in the September 2009 Bundestag election. In particular, the speakers focused on the shift from a four party system (CDU, CSU, SPD, FDP) to a six party system (CDU, CSU, SPD, FDP, Grüne, Linke).

Using empirical data and statistics, it was argued that while polls in 2002 and 2005 suggested comfortable leads for one party, on Election Day the results were divided evenly between the two main parties. Still, the 2009 election differs from the previous two for several reasons. First, although Germans are generally satisfied with the Grand Coalition, the growth of smaller parties will continue to reduce the major parties’ memberships. This trend will likely continue in 2009 due to structural changes, such as declining party identification, that influence voting behavior. The second factor is the candidates. While Merkel continually gains support, Steinmeier’s support is decreasing; this difference is especially interesting because it results from the different levels of support for the candidates in their own parties. Merkel and Steinmeier have 91 percent and 54 percent of their parties’ support, respectively, which demonstrates the unequal position of the candidates. Third, the economic crisis will be influential in this year’s election. The speakers argued that the full extent of the crisis has not reached the voters yet, with only 14 percent of the population considering their economic situation to be bad. By September the crisis may catch up with the voters and could strongly influence the election. Fourth, the upcoming state elections in Thuringia, Saxony, and Saarland might also have an influence on the federal election as they take place shortly before the federal election, on 30 August. After the state elections the federal campaigns will really start to gain momentum and the election campaign will enter the “hot phase.” Finally, such long-term factors as declining turnout and party identification may influence the election and yield better chances for smaller parties. In the current situation, the SPD faces the most severe problems. It was argued that a low voter turnout will hurt the SPD the most, which would add to its already weak performance in polls.

The speakers discussed what the major parties will have to do in light of these developments and gave several recommendations. It will be especially important for parties to mobilize voters. Still, after the election they must remain flexible in order to be able to negotiate and be open to compromises given the nature of the German party system, which tends to produce coalition governments. While some factors and long-term trends can be evaluated and predicted at this time, quite a few factors remain unpredictable in terms of how they will affect the election, such as the upcoming state elections and the economic crisis.

Panel 2: The Impact of Economic Issues on the Federal Election
The speakers agreed that, for varying reasons, the current economic crisis will not have a decisive impact on Germany’s upcoming federal elections. Currently, Germany’s population is relatively unaffected by the crisis because government subsidies ensure that lower-skilled and blue-collar workers retain their employment. This suits the politicians running for election, who do not want economics to play a strong role; as soon as the election ends, however, economics will have to be center stage.

The current economic crisis constitutes the deepest recession in Germany since the economic crisis of the 1920s. In spite of that, the majority of Germans are not feeling the effects of this recession. Although there has been a dramatic decrease in exports, most of the export-dependent industries are not downsizing their workforces because government subsidies allow companies to retain their specialized employees. Additionally, there have been no housing problems and no apparent problems with the stock markets in Germany. Within the poorest states in Germany, such as Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the blue-collar job market remains strong. And although Germany has accumulated a large government deficit, the ramifications of a large government deficit are not yet visible. Finally, while the banking system could be improved, its’ problems have not yet caused a credit crunch.

One speaker argued that Germans are not overly concerned about the economic crisis at this time, because they fear, instead, the current “crisis of democracy.” This crisis is exemplified in low voter turn-out: In the most recent EU parliamentary elections, 60 percent of the electorate did not vote and in the last federal election, more people did not vote than individuals who actually voted for Chancellor Merkel. There is also the problem of “recycled politicians”: a majority of the politicians running for office have already run. Furthermore, Germany lacks an inspiring political leader such as an Obama or Sarkozy – nor is there any such leader on the horizon. Lastly, Germany frequently goes through cycles of economic reform and knows that it cannot rely on global economic affairs for its own economic prosperity. For this reason, and because of their lack of economic knowledge, German politicians do not campaign on issues of economic affairs. However, after the election economics must be discussed and toxic assets, short-term workers, the deficit, and pension reform solutions must be addressed.

In conclusion, all panel participants agreed that economics will not be a driving force in this year’s federal election because there are many more important issues that affect Germans on a day-to-day basis. Nonetheless, Germany is barely fending off an economic crisis; if this economic crisis is not addressed soon after the elections, it could become much worse.

Panel 3: The Federal Election and German Foreign Policy
The third panel discussed the impact the federal election results will have on German foreign policy. Participants argued that while German foreign policy has stagnated since World War II, a more activist approach on the global scene is vital for the stability of the European Union as well as a revitalized relationship with the United States.

In terms of the relationship between Germany and the United States, the consensus was that a CDU-FDP government would be more pro-America. This outcome could then foster transatlantic dialogue on vital issues such as climate change – one of Germany’s priorities. Members of the panel suggested that if Germany fueled further European integration, using the EU rather than NATO as the vehicle, a stable relationship could evolve with Russia. While NATO has a negative connotation for Russians, the EU does not. Greater EU involvement could then encourage the United States to turn from a NATO-based security policy to one including the EU.

If the Grand Coalition remains in power, it was argued, then current foreign policy would continue, the only notable change being a clearer emphasis on the importance of an exit strategy before involvement in foreign conflicts, particularly in Afghanistan. Regardless of the election results Germany must no longer look to its past when considering foreign policy choices; instead, Germany must realize the importance of the role it can play in promoting future successes for the EU.

Panel 4: Effects of the Federal Election on U.S.-German Relations
Since the upcoming elections will likely result in either a Grand Coalition or a CDU-FDP partnership, Chancellor Merkel’s relationship with President Obama will be a defining factor for German-American interactions in the coming years. It is therefore fortunate that the split between the two leaders is not as wide as many suggest. While they may lack chemistry, Obama and Merkel agree on many policy issues. The president is taking the United States in a direction that aligns with many German priorities, and the chancellor may defy domestic public opinion by deploying more German troops to Afghanistan if stability in the area improves. Additionally, Merkel, who has spoken of the need for “economic warfare” against Iran, would be a strong partner in U.S.-initiated sanctions.

There exists, however, a major obstacle to strong German-American relations: Germany’s increasingly introspective outlook. The new government will make the German economy its top priority, limiting its capacity to devote attention to the military conflict areas, as the U.S. desires. While the United States will likely expect an increase in German cooperation, many Germans feel that their country is already doing more than enough to work with Americans on issues like climate change and troop deployment. This different outlook may lead to tensions across the Atlantic. Furthermore, now that the United States has elected a “European-minded” president, many in Germany feel decreased pressure to play a role in world affairs and instead expect Obama to carry the burden of spreading “European” values. If Germans continue to take the American partnership for granted, the United States will likely begin to view Germany as a useless ally.

To prevent this, Merkel will need to slowly re-introduce foreign policy as a government priority. Particularly, Germany will need to return to its former position as a leader in the EU, where, given Britain’s anti-Europeanism and France’s reputation for pursing its own agenda, Germany has a particular niche as the only viable partner for the United States. Germany must also reassess its role in NATO. German insecurities about NATO’s potential as a global actor trouble Germany’s allies. Merkel can encourage real debate on strategy and foster an environment that reminds the German public that their country has its own strategic interests and that pursuing these internationally is a legitimate course of action. Such circumstances would permit a stronger, more equal American partnership, and allow Germany to initiate mutually beneficial policy independently – rather than awaiting instruction from the United States.