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Natalia Toganova

PhD in Economics, Head of the Sector Section of Science and Innovation, Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations

On September 24, 2017 Germany held its federal election which proved to be the pivotal point, if not for the entire German political system, then at least for its party component. The union of CDU-CSU and SPD earned much fewer votes than in 2013.

Immigration was the hottest topic of the elections. All other topics were seen through the prism of immigration, be it foreign policy, or social problems.

The ultra-radical Alternative for Germany won 12.6% of votes, making it to the lower chamber of the parliament as the third largest faction, which really came as a big surprise. Alternative made Germany quite a bit more “normal”, since populists can be found today in every European state. Yet, the Alternative soared in the eastern parts of Germany (up to 37% in some parts of the federal land Saxony) and in the areas largely inhabited by “the Germans from Russia”, which is indicative of a problem.

Shrinking support for the leftist parties is yet another shift brought on by the 2017 elections. In Germany, they tend to explain this trend, saying that Chancellor Merkel is “stealing the topics” in an offhand way. SPD and other leftist parties become indistinguishable, turning into discussants rather than creators of new reality.

Germany is most likely in for a black-yellow-green coalition (CDU/CSU, FDP and the Greens). There is no way of telling what kind of program they will generate or how they will share the departmental portfolios. There is only one thing for sure so far — Angela Merkel will retain the office of the Chancellor.

The Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs traditionally goes to the minors in the coalition, which means the Greens may have it. So far, Cem Özdemir hardly seems fit for this office, especially considering two other CDU heavy-weights — Ursula von der Leyen and Peter Altmaier.


On September 24, 2017 Germany held its federal election which proved to be the pivotal point, if not for the entire German political system, then at least for its party component. The union of CDU-CSU and SPD earned much fewer votes than in 2013.

Immigration was the hottest topic of the elections. All other topics were seen through the prism of immigration, be it foreign policy, or social problems.

The ultra-radical Alternative for Germany won 12.6% of votes, making it to the lower chamber of the parliament as the third largest faction, which really came as a big surprise. Alternative made Germany quite a bit more “normal”, since populists can be found today in every European state. Yet, the Alternative soared in the eastern parts of Germany (up to 37% in some parts of the federal land Saxony) and in the areas largely inhabited by “the Germans from Russia”, which is indicative of a problem.

Shrinking support for the leftist parties is yet another shift brought on by the 2017 elections. In Germany, they tend to explain this trend, saying that Chancellor Merkel is “stealing the topics” in an offhand way. SPD and other leftist parties become indistinguishable, turning into discussants rather than creators of new reality.

Germany is most likely in for a black-yellow-green coalition (CDU/CSU, FDP and the Greens). There is no way of telling what kind of program they will generate or how they will share the departmental portfolios. There is only one thing for sure so far — Angela Merkel will retain the office of the Chancellor.

The Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs traditionally goes to the minors in the coalition, which means the Greens may have it. So far, Cem Özdemir hardly seems fit for this office, especially considering two other CDU heavy-weights — Ursula von der Leyen and Peter Altmaier.

There has been general consensus over the years that the electoral campaign and the elections themselves in Germany are apt to bore anyone to death. Firmly established parties churn out programs so remarkably similar that even political analysts believe they are playing “spot the difference”. And they inevitably lose. Chancellor Angela Merkel mastered the art of stonewalling to perfection when it comes to discussing issues of import for the public, skillfully avoiding debates with her opponents and winning election after election. However, one should not be dazed by all of this. In fact, the Bundestag-2017 elections proved to be the pivotal point, if not for the entire German political system, then at least for its party component.

Christian Democratic Union (CDU) got 26.8% of votes, whereas its allies in Bavaria — Christian Social Union (CSU) earned 6.2%. These two parties traditionally form coalition in the Bundestag and, therefore, are referred to as the union of CDU-CSU. Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) won 20.5% of votes. Which means that the two people’s parties earned much fewer votes than in 2013 — 34.1%, 7.4% and 25.7% respectively. The Left (Die Linke) and Alliance 90/the Greens (Bündnis 90/die Grünen) kept their ground — 9.2% against 8.6% in 2013 and 8.9% against 8.4% respectively. The ultra-radical Alternative for Germany (AfD) won 12.6% of votes, making it to the lower chamber of the parliament as the third largest faction, which really came as no big surprise — the polls correctly reflected the public opinion on the eve of the elections. Free Democratic Party also returned to the Bundestag (10.7%). In 2013, it never reached the benchmark 5% (barely making 4.8%). Since the other parties see no place for the Alternative in the government, there may be two options for the winners to form a coalition: the so-called Jamaica coalition (CDU/CSU, FDP and die Grünen), or the big coalition again (CDU/CSU and SPD). The latter, though, is out of question so far, as the SPD announced its drift into the opposition. One should also keep in mind, the minority cannot form a government in Germany, as the Chancellor who forms the government is elected by the majority in the Bundestag.

What do the voting results have in store for the German party system? Biparty system that reached its peak in the 1980s, evolving into the coalition of two people’s parties (CDU and SPD) plus three minions (FDP, Die Grünen and Die Linke), is the thing of the past now. Now that the Alternative for Germany made it to the Bundestag, there will be six parties in the parliament. And if one factors in the rekindled rivalry between the “sister parties” — CDU and its Bavarian ally CSU — there may be grand total of seven parties. More parties will mean more trouble in shaping up the government, not to mention certain existential discomfort for the academic community. The six-party reality does not fit into the theoretical models of electoral behavior, upon which the scholars used to dwell for decades, explaining who votes how and why. The Alternative shaped itself as a party of professors that has drawn the votes of mostly poorly educated people and the “losers” who never found their place in the globalized world. Granted, the AfD earned the votes of some professors — its staunch followers who still remember the scientific approach to the matters of European integration, despite the party’s massive swing to the right. This totally negates any effort to shape the theory of popular preferences by the income, social standing, etc., although the remaining constituents’ behavior negates any logic as well. Even if the Alternative ceases to exist in the nearest decade, with Frauke Petry — the party’s leader — marching out of the AfD faction the very day after the elections and announcing her intention to leave the party as well are the harbingers of a heated struggle within the Alternative for Germany, and the constituents are most unlikely to keep sticking to the outdated theories.

Shrinking support for the leftist parties is yet another shift brought on by the 2017 elections. SPD, the Left and the Greens combined gather fewer and fewer votes. In Germany, they tend to explain this trend, saying that Chancellor Merkel is “stealing the topics” in an offhand way. “Topical unscrupulousness” stems from the allegation that A. Merkel is the guarantor that the government will find the right solution for any complex crisis regardless of the ideological background. The latest and most profound shock was revision of the CDU family values when Angela Merkel de facto allowed the CDU members to vote on the problem of same sex marriage, following their “conscience” rather than the party discipline. A. Merkel voted “nay” on that matter, but the law was passed, same sex marriage became equal to traditional marriage, and the discussion was moved out of the ideological chambers of the CDU/CSU, while the SPD was stripped of yet another pre-election subject. And this is how SPD and other leftist parties become indistinguishable, turning into discussants rather than creators of new reality. However, Angela Merkel’s successful crisis management comes at a steep price: her decisions often go against the ideological and conceptual basis of the CDU, inevitably hurting the party and the electoral support.

Global trends also contribute to the loss of popularity by the leftist parties: social democracy is unable to offer a competitive concept of economically successful future. Stratification of society deepens in many countries, and Germany is no exception here. However, the opponents can’t seem to agree upon the return to the 1980-1990s model of distribution of social goods. Despite the successful reforming by Gerhardt Schroeder in the 2000s (no more unemployment problem, Germany is no longer “the sick European”, sustainable economic growth), German voters still find it hard to see social democrats as a competent economic actor. According to these same voters, only CDU and Angela Merkel are able to sort things out with financial meltdown and the Euro-zone crisis. After the most underwhelming performance in the 2017 elections, one would think twice before dubbing the SPD a “people’s” party, and the latter appears to be drifting further to the left: Andrea Nahles, former Federal Minister of Labor and Social Affairs in the government formed by “the big coalition”, known as the left-wing SPD member, is taking charge of the SPD faction in the Bundestag.

Following the election results, the CDU/CSU union is driven to review its position in the political spectrum. The “sister parties” agreed to table their disputes for the period of elections, but resumed their feud immediately after the votes had been tallied. In fact, the Bavarian CSU has traditionally been right-wing, conservative party, and would, from time to time, drift toward nationalist stance. The 2015 immigration crisis and Merkel’s response were hardly in line with such policy, so the discord only deepened in 2016. Approval of the maximum number of refugees which the FRG would accept proved to be the stumbling block. CDU has been persevering in refusing to approve any maximum amount whereas CSU keeps insisting on this issue, up to the point where it threatens to sink the new coalition agreement. CSU will try to keep its shift to the right, i.e. the field currently played by the Alternative and coveted from time to time by certain FDP officials. CDU will, most likely, try to preserve its centrist position, especially if the SPD drifts to the left. Angela Merkel is now loath to discuss the reasons for such dismal results at the elections. It only makes sense to assume that she is postponing the discussion in an attempt to avoid it altogether, or at least mitigate the problem.

Immigration was the hottest topic of the elections. According to the polls, 61% of Germans fear the tensions will grow due to the increasing number of migrants, a fear overshadowed only by extremism (62%) and terrorism (71%). All other topics were seen through the prism of immigration, be it foreign policy (relationship with Turkey, continued Western European integration), or social problems (deficient social housing, quality education, etc.). Meanwhile, CSU and SPD tried their best to focus on other problems, pushing the immigration problem out of the discourse. The Alternative and, to some extent, FDP hurried to pick the subject up. While the Alternative would occasionally slip into downright Nazi rhetoric, FDP only toyed with the topic, focusing rather on the matters of security. Ultimately, the Alternative played into the hands of the FDP. In the past few years, liberals were steadily lambasted for their allegedly anti-social position and for the lack of empathy for those in need. In 2013 elections, liberals responded to this situation by drifting to the left, and that cost them the seats in Bundestag. In 2017, compared to the Alternative, FDP appeared to be socially acceptable alternative for those dissenting with the government. The idea of freedom and personal responsibility for one’s own life, the cornerstone of the party’s ideology, is aligned with condemnation of the idea of sharing the benefits of a welfare state with the immigrants.

There is still no consensus on whether the immigration is, and has been the key problem, or it only “triggered” the discontent with the government policy, social stratification and the life itself. A lot of facts are in favor of the latter. To begin with, the immigration was as active in the early 1990s, yet there was no any crisis. Secondly, the flow of immigrants is petering out, with the German government contributing greatly (agreement with Turkey and a number of North African states that were promised stronger cooperation in the years to come). Thirdly, not every immigrant who came to Germany in 2015–2016 will stay — most of them were only given a temporary residence permit, and that’s including Syrian refugees. German government endeavors its best effort to organize repatriation of immigrants, adapting the laws and procedures which would help the remaining individuals integrate in the German jobs market.

However, one would rightfully point out that almost total elimination of xenophobia from the political discourse in the post-war era by those wary of the Nazi past could not last forever. Scientific community and works of art never denied the existence of xenophobic behavior. Take, for example, “Fear Eats the Soul” (Angst essen Seele auf) by R. Fassbinder (1974), or the shocking deeds of the underground Nazis in 1998–2011, or even sociological research claiming that over one-third of German population is xenophobic to certain extent. Therefore, the right-wing populist Alternative made Germany quite a bit more “normal”, since populists can be found today in every European state.

So, what does this new “normalcy” mean for Germany? Firstly, it means that for quite a while we will be witnessing assiduous efforts to bring the political discourse back to the traditional German community. The Alternative way of discussion, which is found not only in provocative statements made by its grandstanding leaders and in social networks, but is also leaking offline, along with the substantive part of the Alternative policies will serve as a red flag for all other political actors in Germany. Bundestag is about to become one of the battlegrounds. In this light, appointment of Wolfgang Schäuble, former Federal Minister of Finance, to the position of the President of Bundestag appears to be totally reasonable. Secondly, there comes a problem of political education for the masses. The post-war system of educational and informational centers is no longer adequate for promoting the education and democratic values. Partly, it happened because some social groups gather information mostly from social platforms which allow people to separate themselves from other points of view and live de facto in one’s own information reality. Partly, it happened because the integration policy implemented over the last three decades failed to cover certain groups, such as part of population of the new German lands and ethnic Germans who have been moving to Germany from Eastern Europe and former Soviet Union since 1980s. Indeed, it would be wrong to maintain that these groups are allergic to democracy and its values. Yet, the Alternative soared in the eastern parts of Germany (up to 37% in some parts of the federal land Saxony) and in the areas largely inhabited by “the Germans from Russia”, which is indicative of a problem.

The 2017 elections should also be regarded as a turning point because of essential changes in the disputes about the differences between the Western and the Eastern Germans. This topic ceased to be a taboo. Thirty years into the reunification, Eastern lands still differ from the Western. Now one openly admits it and one no longer pretends that the problem does not exist. However, one should avoid seeing this fact as failure to integrate the “new” federal lands into the political and economic system of the “older” lands. Still, certain aspects of mentality that manifest themselves in voting for the Alternative indicate that certain “Western values” are rejected here. On the other hand, the fact that differences are finally articulated may well be indicative of the success after the decades of effort. Germany is a federal state and its federal lands and certain regions differ quite a lot. Bavarians differ from the Frisians, while the Swabians are believed to possess some peculiar personality traits. Yet, they all form a unitary state, and Eastern Germans comprise its integral part.

On the one hand, the role of Germany in the EU and worldwide was a topic of the election campaign. On the other hand, it was not. Emmanuel Macron, President of France, offered his vision of the future Europe immediately after the elections in Germany. Timing like this makes one wonder about the extent of coordination between Paris and Berlin. The idea of stronger integration through increased distribution of financial assets within the entire EU or the Euro area alone is not exactly popular in Germany. About 58% of Germans voiced concerns for the increasing costs resulting from indebtedness of the other EU states. This is second “popular” concern after the increasing tensions caused by immigration. Despite its traditional pro-integration and pro-solidarity stance (and despite making Martin Schultz, former President of the European Parliament, its candidate for the office of the Bundeskanzler), SPD worked hard to keep these aspects out of its election agenda. Angela Merkel followed the suit, being fully aware of the quandary she is in: keeping her eye open to the public opinion, she cannot build foreign policy of a minion state that can afford shedding responsibilities worldwide. Germany is bound to be a responsible member of the EU and a global player as befits its economic and political strength. Retirement of Wolfgang Schäuble, former Federal Minister of Finance who greatly favored the austerity approach, gets Merkel off the leash. However, one should hardly expect fundamental revision of the German policy in the sphere of stronger integration through financial tools.

Relationship with Turkey proved to be another important foreign policy topic. After the coup in 2016, Germany gave asylum to a number of Turkish military officers and public figures. Germany weathered a wave of scandals caused by the reports of Turkish intelligence spying after the FRG nationals under the cover of religious institutions. Under various pretenses, Turkish politicians were denied permits to make public appearances in German cities on the eve of the referendum in Turkey, in turn, the Turkish Republic detained several journalists and public figures who held dual (German and Turkish) citizenship (only two of them happened to have German citizenship alone). This topic is all the more complex, because relationship with Turkey is not exactly a matter of foreign policy for Germany. In many ways, it’s a matter of home policy. After M. Schultz in no uncertain terms said during the debates with A. Merkel that he was opposed to the EU membership of Turkey, one may wonder how German citizens who also retained Turkish citizenship would react to this stance of the SPD. Situation with Turkish community on Germany is rather indicative of the integration problems in the XXI century. There are over three million ethnic Turks in Germany today. Modern means of communication, ability to watch TV broadcasts from any country and social networks that tend to present information as they see fit — they all, if only unwittingly, hinder the integration, creating rather the feeling of presence and participation in the life of another country. No “offline” methods guarantee 100% of success in solving this problem. And this problem will be haunting Germany for quite a while, with conflicts between nationals and those who have dual citizenship or nationals of another country due to cultural differences (e.g., clothes as attribute of freedom of conscience). However, situation in Germany is hardly unique, as a lot of countries are facing similar difficulties.

Germany is most likely in for a black-yellow-green coalition (CDU/CSU, FDP and the Greens). There is no way of telling what kind of program they will generate or how they will share the departmental portfolios, as FDP and the Greens have totally opposing opinions on quite a number of issues. CDU and CSU also need to work out their joint program for the next four years. There is only one thing for sure so far – Angela Merkel will retain the office of the Chancellor. Christian Lindner (FDP) is most likely to become the Federal Minister of Finance. The Greens are apparently seeking the seat in the department of environment protection. FDP kept talking about education and, therefore, is most likely to see their representative heading the Federal Department of Education and Science. It would only seem logical that CSU retains the Federal Ministry of the Interior, which means that Thomas de Maiziere will keep his office. The Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs traditionally goes to the minors in the coalition, which means the Greens may have it. So far, Cem Özdemir hardly seems fit for this office, especially considering two other CDU heavy-weights — Ursula von der Leyen (Federal Defense Minister in “the big coalition”) and Peter Altmaier (Chancellery Chief of Staff in “the big coalition”), who are much more experienced to run for this position. Therefore, the suspense is still on: the elections are over but one never knows what kind of a cabinet there will be, not to mention its program. Even in this time of uncertainty, any optimistic expectations of revision of relationship with Russia appear to be groundless.


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  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
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