German elections: Politikverdrossenheit and rightist fears

22 Septembre 2013

On 22 September, Germans will vote on the constituency of the Bundestag (the lower house), which will then go on to vote on a (new) German chancellor. Yet, against the backdrop of falling voters’ participation and the emergence of new ‘rightist’ parties: whom to vote for and for what reasons? Analysis.

Peer Steinbrück (SPD) and Angela Merkel (CDU) | Credit Photo -- picture alliance
Peer Steinbrück (SPD) and Angela Merkel (CDU) | Credit Photo -- picture alliance
Update (22.09.2013) : according to the exit poll, Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats won the election with 42.5 %.

According to opinion polls, Merkel’s CDU is currently leading with roughly 40%, while the SPD, the main opposition party has only 25%. A chance to improve the 15% different got the challenger Steinbrück from the centre-left SPD last Monday in the TV standoff with chancellor Merkel. Yet, public opinion is split on who was the most convincing. While Merkel gave the typical big words – lack of content answers, the German electorate should by now be used to, Steinbrück was certainly the most aggressive discussant claiming Merkel’s euro crisis policy had brought misery to Southern Europe. Conversely, some among Merkel’s electoral support stems from her management of the euro zone crisis and the record-low unemployment rates. Though to some the choice of Merkel’s necklace seems to have been more important than the actual contents of the debate.

The following day, the smaller German parties – the FDP, the Linke and the Grünen had their own TV debate. The constitution requires at least a simple majority to form a government thereby enhancing the importance of smaller parties in the government building process. The CDU with its estimated 40% support will therefore not have enough votes on its own and will probably need to form a coalition with one or more of the other parties. If its current partner, the FDP, with whom it is likely to try to form a coalition again, was therefore to lose too many votes, Merkel might have to work again with the SPD in a Grand Coalition to reach the required simple majority – even though she would certainly prefer not to.

The German electoral system explained

The Bundestag is one of the two chambers of Parliament. It is the only one of the two chambers that is directly elected by the People with the other chamber, the Bundesrat containing representatives sent by the respective governments of the German Länder. Elections are based on the mixed member proportional representation system, which is also used in New Zealand and Japan. Of the 598 seats in the Bundestag, 299 are allocated according to the results of the single constituency first-past-the-post voting, while the remaining 299 seats are being distributed according to the parties’ state lists (second vote). For the second vote, parties need to score at least 5% to be seated in the Bundestag, which leads effectively to the elimination of most new parties by the threshold – though it prevents the emergence of a splinter party system as in the Weimar Republic.

However, the Bundestag can seat more than 598 as additional seats can be and have been added to the German Parliament. Under the so-called overhang mandate, 24 additional seats have been added to the current diet – 21 of which CDU seats. There were additional seats because the number of constituency seats won by parties like the CDU in the first vote was higher than the number of seats it would have been entitled to according to the second vote. That way, the first vote for the constituency-based member is sometimes perceived as more important than a victory in the number of second votes as first votes will certainly lead to a seat in Parliament – be it with overhang-mandate or without. In contrast, victory in the second vote only means that a certain proportion of the Bundestag will be allocated to a party - minus the number of party members, which got into the Bundestag on the first vote. The remaining number of seats - if there are any - is then allocated according to the party list.

German Politikverdrossenheit

However, in recent years the number of Germans actually participating in elections has fallen – which is often referred to under the term ‘Politikverdrossenheit’, which describes the general discontent of the German electorate with politics. ‘Politikverdrossene’ argue that the distinctions between the different parties have eroded over time, which leads to the sentiment that it does not matter where voters make their cross in the end, as there is little difference between the policies of different parties. In addition, the frequently broken election promises – leading to Merkel’s 2009 slogan ‘Ehrlichkeit – keine Patentrezepte’ (honesty – no quick fixes), contributes to a situation in which many people have lost the belief into politicians’ ability to put country over party. Moreover, though interested voters can consult the different parties’ programmes, whether or not what is in that programme will actually be pursued is on a different page altogether. The CDU did certainly not state in its programme that it would support a nuclear phase-out – yet, that is what Merkel ended up advocating in response to the strong public sentiment in the wake of Fukushima.

New parties – an attack from the right in disguise?

Are new parties then a viable solution for Politikverdrossene? They have to win at least 5% in the elections to make it across the hurdle into the Bundestag while withstanding the criticism of the existing parties. Yet, the most difficult challenge is probably that they have to convince the electorate that they represent something new, different from the existing parties. One of the new parties called Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) (henceforth AfD) is trying to do just that - be different. The AfD proposes some controversial policy changes – most notable among them their Euro policy. In calling for a revision of the Maastricht Convention to allow countries to quit the euro, the AfD has taken a defined stand against chancellor Merkel’s decision to keep Greece in the euro. Indeed the AfD proposal goes as far as to advocate a return to the national currencies (in Germany’s case the Deutsche Mark) claiming that Germany would be financially better off as would most of the other euro zone countries. Its EEC policy is however not to be confused with its stand towards the European Union as a whole. While critical of the EEC and its big extension as it currently stands, the AfD supports the European Union as a political alliance – though it agrees with David Cameron that reforms are necessary. The AfD support Cameron’s call for more competition in the European Union and re-empowering the national Parliaments.

Yet, so far the German public has been made wary of the new party. One of the reasons for the suspicious attitude with which it has been received is certainly its display in major newspapers such as the Spiegel as ‘Party for Males over 50’ in addition to being labelled a new rightist party. In awakening the historic German rightist fear, despite the fact that the AfD has so far not voiced any political alignment, the Spiegel certainly tries to discredit the AfD as a viable alternative. If one compares this reception to that of the German Pirate Party, which also had to deal with allegations of being rightist - though for more controversial statements on German history - the question, what does being ‘right’ mean today in Germany has to be asked.

The Pirate Party officially stated that it perceived itself as constituting the ‘Neue Mitte’ (new middle) thereby rejecting the traditional right-left division of the political spectrum, which it perceives as old-fashioned. Instead of distinguishing between liberal and conservative, so the German Pirates, we should draw the line between those supporting freedom and those backing authoritarianism. Yet, the Pirate Party support base is marred with factionalism and internal power struggles, which threatened to undermine the very transparency they advocate. In addition, after several scandals involving connections between Top Pirate candidates and the NPD in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, statements drawing comparisons to Germany’s national socialist past and alleged similarities in the policy proposals, the Pirate Party has now taken a very clear anti-NPD stand . The fact that every new party has to deal with the ‘rightist scare’ sooner or later raises a lot of questions. Not just that of the role of established parties in the ‘rightist scare’ propaganda but also that of the role of the current regime in the construction of Germans history. If accusations of being ‘rightist’ against new parties (regardless of whether or not they are true) are turned into a political tool that tries to mobilise German history against change, maybe we should reemphasise the need for a clearer distinction between our own notions of right and left today and back then.

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