No end in sight for Bundestagnation

Angela Merkel’s victory puts an end to the inertia of the Grand Coalition, but German politics still lacks dynamism.

Matthias Heitmann

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After the German General Election on 27 September, the era of the Great Coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD) and the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has come to an end.

This is the good news – the two parties had spent most of their time in government blocking each other’s plans. But unfortunately, it is rather unlikely that Chancellor Angela Merkel, now able to run Germany in coalition with more politically amenable partners, will have the political strength or the courage necessary to move the country out of stagnation and political paralysis.

The new German government will consist of Merkel’s CDU, its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP). After 11 years in government, the SPD will join the Greens and the Left Party (formed by ex-social democrats, left wingers and the successors to the East German communist party) in opposition.

After four years of CDU/CSU/SPD government with a majority of nearly 70 per cent, the new Bundestag will have a much stronger opposition, at least in terms of numbers (46.3 per cent). For the democratic culture of Germany, this at least is a positive change.

Party ​2005 2009
CDU/CSU ​35.2%​ 33.8%
SPD​ 34.2​ 23%
FDP ​9.8%​ 14.6%
Greens​ 8.1%​ 10.7%
Left Party​ 8.7% ​11.9%

German election results

The election reinforced the relative decline of both people’s parties. The CDU/CSU vote fell by 1.4 percentage points to 33.8 per cent, while the SPD plummeted 11 percentage points to 23 per cent. This decline of the mainstream parties is reflected in the success of the smaller parties; it confirms the demise of the old political concepts of left and right and the fragmentation of the traditional party system.

Although it may appear that Germany will now return to a classical conflict between political camps – liberal-conservative government versus green-left opposition – any talk of such a revival of political contestation ignores the facts.

All attempts from SPD politicians to mobilise voters by painting doomsday scenarios of a neoliberal-conservative government failed. The SPD lost one million voters to the Left Party, while another two million former supporters didn’t bother to vote at all. The SPD will now desperately try to establish a new profile, not against the government, but against its opponents within the opposition.

In the same way, the return of the liberal-conservative government, which ruled the country under Helmut Kohl from 1982–1998, should not be interpreted as a pronounced shift to the right. The winner of the election is not the conservative CDU/CSU, but the liberal FDP. Its 14.6 per cent share of the vote, up by nearly five percentage points, is the party’s best-ever result and shows that voters have had enough of the conservative-socialist stalemate. The question, however, is whether the CDU and FDP will have the courage really to address Germany’s problems.

The new parliament, with a coherent governing majority, can no longer offer any excuse for failing to provide a clear political programme. However, we need much more than a unified government to revitalise democracy. Low voter participation (down to 71 per cent, which is bad for Germany) and the content-free election campaign show that German politics lacks any kind of dynamism that could engage people. It was striking that no politician dared to mention the low turnout throughout the election evening as the results were coming in.

These factors together indicate that the political class remains weak and lacks the confidence to tackle the real, pressing issues. Despite Merkel’s victory, it is quite likely that political stagnation is here to stay.

Matthias Heitmann is online editor of the German magazine NovoArgumente.

Previously on spiked

On the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mick Hume explained why Thatcher defended it. Four years ago, Brendan O’Neill looked at the the gap between the pre-election predictions and the post-election mess in the 2005 German elections. In the run-up to the 2005 election, Sabine Reul felt that politicians were evasive and speechless. Elsewhere, Matthias Heitmann criticised the German government for trying to reinvent the nation around the 2006 World Cup. Or read more at spiked issue Europe.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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