The governing parties of the grand coalition between the CDU/CSU and SPD have clearly lost the German parliamentary elections (-13.7%). The defeat of this constellation reveals a massive shift in the Republic’s political landscape. This earthquake will shake the circumstances and institutions as we know them to their very foundations.
Despite its considerable losses, the CDU/CSU continues to be Germany’s strongest political force: On a federal level, it reached 33% of the vote. However, in all the 299 constituencies the party performed less well than in 2013. Some double-digit losses for the CDU are worth mentioning: Saxony (-15.8%), Baden-Wuerttemberg (-11.3%), Saxony-Anhalt (-10.9%) and Thuringia (-10%). Its sister party CSU did not manage to put the AfD in its place by reinforcing its rightist and conservative programme (internal security, refugee policy). In Bavaria, it lost 10.5% and missed the absolute majority by far, reaching only 38.8% of the vote. To the right of the CSU, also in Bavaria, the AfD managed to reach 12.4%.
Parliamentary elections 24/09/2017 – second votes – preliminary results
Diff. to 2013
Diff. to 2013
Invalid blank votes
Germany will be governed by Angela Merkel for another four years: The Union wants to establish a so-called “Jamaica coalition” (the colours of the respective parties are those of the Jamaican flag) with the FDP and the Greens. A coalition with the liberals only – which many business representatives would have preferred – is not an option. The Greens, Merkel’s favourite coalition partner, managed to defend its share of the vote. But it remains to be seen whether the party will be able to halt or mitigate the further implementation of neoliberal deregulation and redistribution policies, which are likely to occur. In any case, the coalition negotiations will probably be tedious and complicated.
The SPD has to accept the worst election result since the foundation of the Federal Republic. After 2009 (23%) and 2013 (25.7%), it reached a meagre 20.5% of the vote in this election. For months, a social democratic defeat had been looming. The dimension of this defeat, however, led the party leadership to decline a continuation of the grand coalition. Going into opposition, it plans a comprehensive reorientation. Overall, European social democracy is in a bad state and is stuck in a deep programmatic-organisational crisis. The SPD’s choice to go into opposition may create better conditions for the party’s reinvention.
The Left (die LINKE) has clearly missed its goal to come third. However, it reached its second-best result in parliamentary elections in its history. Looking at the absolute number of votes gained, it managed to expand its support within society. That said, also for the Socialist Left Party the political circumstances won’t become easier as the SPD chooses to go into opposition. The Left has to face the challenge of specifying a transformation strategy for capitalist society and develop a resistance against the continued tendency towards a shift to the right, together with alliance partners.
The further rise of the AfD is a political phenomenon with far-reaching consequences. The right-wing populist party has reached 12.6% of the vote and has therefore improved its share by 7.9% compared with the 2013 elections. It managed to mobilise roughly 1.2 million non-voters and took away 1 million votes from the CDU/CSU, half a million from the SPD, and 400,000 from the Left. The AfD is the winner of the 2017 election to the German Bundestag. 94 MPs will represent the party in parliament; It is now the third strongest political party. All fantasies which predicted the end of the modern right-wing forces have been proven wrong.1 Heribert Prantl is right in rejecting the thesis of the “passing storm cloud”: “This theory’s disadvantage is its incorrectness. Across Europe – just like in the interwar years – democratic-liberal political mindsets are clashing. In many countries, right-wing extremist parties have established themselves as important players. In Poland and Hungary, they are governing parties, in Austria, this might soon be the case too, as there are elections on 15th October. In Germany, for a long time, it was believed that the right-wing potential couldn’t be tapped without a charismatic leader figure. The example of the AfD shows that this figure isn’t necessary.”
The newspapers’ headlines during the weeks running up to the election helped spread acceptance for right-wing populism. The AfD was able to benefit from scandals it brought about itself and which would have massively damaged any other party. Its political rivals reinforced this tendency by expressing their disgust for the newcomer party and thus confirmed AfD voters in their hatred for the “establishment”. Despite its internal fragmentation, the AfD will present the Union with new challenges. With the AfD’s future representation in the Bundestag, further damages to the country’s political culture are to be expected.
The election results show crass differences in voting tendencies between the “old” and the “new” German federal states. The FDP’s success is due to its rise in popularity in the old federal states, while it stagnates at roughly 6% in Eastern Germany. The Greens and the SPD are less successful in the East, and the Left has also lost some of its support, clearly missing the 20% mark: In the Eastern federal states it shrank to a mere 17.1%, while it extended its support to 7.2% in the West. The AfD reached more than 20% in East Germany, compared with 8.5% in West Germany. A remarkable fact: Unlike many interpretations, the AfD’s success is not due to the Left’s losses, but mainly due to the fact that it manages to recruit non-voters (overall election turnout at 76.2%) and former CDU/CSU voters.
Merkel’s critics within the Union, who have remained rather silent until now, consider themselves to have been proven right by the party’s bad election result and the AfD’s success. Angela Merkel and the party leadership now have to take stock: The party has gained support with the political centre, but opened space for a new right-wing force. It seems likely that the FDP will be part of the next government, which will lead to a further aggravation of the social divide in the country: The Free Democrats will fight against the reinforcement of the German collective agreements (minimum wage, universal applicability of collective agreements, etc.). Furthermore, they will abolish the law safeguarding affordable housing, and deregulation policies will gather speed once again. During the election campaign, FDP representatives advocated a strict interpretation of the European Fiscal Compact and mentioned Greece’s exit from the Eurozone as a potential scenario.
For several years now, European as well as US political parties of the modernised right have celebrated a continuous success. Brexit in the UK, Donald Trump’s election victory in the US in November 2016, and the success of right-wing populist parties in the Netherlands, France and now also Germany are visible signs of this success. Since Trump’s election as President of the USA, a new “era of populism” has come about. Right-wing populism is clearly a central topic of democracy in the 21st century. Now, with some delay, this trend has also reached Germany.
Right-wing populist tendencies are based on an aggressive mistrust towards the political establishment. The “establishment” includes everyone involved in the institutional structure of the existing political party system and parliamentarianism, arrogant politicians who seem to be out of touch with the real world and only pursue the interests of a small minority instead of those of the majority. Political decision-makers aren’t trusted to solve the accumulated problems and people try to find answers in nationalist formulas, which are announced by people who are deemed credible.
The established parties, parliaments and politicians as typical representatives of the establishment find themselves under the spotlight of populists. Furthermore, a critical stance towards the media, the European Union and the rule of law are part of this anti-establishment attitude. The second dimension of populism includes anti-pluralistic attitudes. Populists assume a “general will of the people” and therefore reject any institutions and processes of pluralistic decision-making. Instead, populists claim that politics must be a direct expression of the will of the people.
The rise of right-wing populism is the result of several factors. Its point of departure is a great sense of anger which has built up in a part of the population. The specific national shape populism takes in each country is the result of the individual political system's weaknesses, authoritarian cultural mentalities, as well as feelings of economic and social injustice and disappointment. These are joined and fuelled by a more or less established number of right-wing populist groups and parties.
Right-wing populism is a reaction to the crisis situation in capitalist societies which are dominated by the financial markets. In Germany, it was the East-German regional associations of the AfD in particular which set the party’s orientation as a nationalist force, focusing on German ethnicity and as a movement of the “people” against the so-called societal experiments of the past decades. With its attempt to bestow a positive image to its focus on ethnic orientation, and by practicing historical and political revisionism, the AfD shifts to the right, becoming a nationalist party with an emphasis on German ethnicity. Hence, its clear separation from right-wing extremist groups (e.g. NPD) becomes a permanent problem.2
In the late summer of 2015, growing numbers of refugees in Germany and in other parts of Europe gave an impetus to the xenophobic and Islamophobic dimension of the AfD. At the same time, the party kept criticising the established parties, the EU, and rejecting multiculturalism. Besides refusing the supranational European institutions, which it perceives as imposed from outside, the party rejects the “Islamisation of the Western world”. The global migration movements and the European refugee crisis make the new divide visible: On the one hand, there are the people, portrayed as a homogenous community of good, respectable, patriotic, hard-working and law-abiding Germans; On the other hand, there is the corrupt, parasitic elite which knowingly betrays the people and is only concerned with its own advantage. This fictional idea of a single “people” is a central point of reference for the AfD. The party perceives articulating the people’s “real” and “true” interests, and acting as its voice, among its main tasks. The people must be saved from foreign infiltration and colonisation by corrupt elites.
Despite the AfD’s success in the German parliamentary elections, there is no reason for demonising this party or even giving up. In 2017, right-wing populists are managing to mobilise only a limited number of people. Adopting a good and credible policy in Germany and Europe would be an effective means to reducing its threat. Recent developments in Austria, France, the Netherlands and Italy give rise to the danger that right-wing populists and populists may trigger an uncontrollable chain reaction of economic and political turmoil if, for example, a successful strategy for an Italian exit from the Eurozone can be found – that is, if the world of politics doesn’t strongly oppose this trend towards the right.
One reason for the current power relations – 33% for the CDU/CSU, roughly 20.5% for the SPD and 12.6% for the AfD – is the fact that the majority of voters have a positive view of their current economic and social circumstances. Despite turbulences in the automotive industry and the US President’s protectionist measures, German and European economies are in full swing. Unemployment is low. The large labour market, however, is dominated by temporary and moderately to poorly paid jobs. Many senior citizens keep working beyond their retirement age because they cannot maintain their living standards with only their low pensions. More than 70% of Germans are still satisfied with their personal situations, even though many of them are angry because of overt and covert forms of social injustice.
The majority of voters make their decisions according to a typical interpretation recently described by the German Rheingold Institut3: They have divided their worlds into their bubble and the external world. They live in a private bubble in which they feel well and protected. Inside this bubble there are of course up- and downsides. The external world is perceived as a threat, as a complex and frightening world full of terror, Brexit, globalisation, Erdoğan and Trump.
The superficial happiness of a majority of voters is interspersed with a deep feeling of unease. Two thirds of German adults have doubts concerning the future. They state that their children and grandchildren will experience difficulties in preserving the social status of their parents during their lifetime, let alone improving it.
We are following the interpretation of the Rheingold Institut’s recent study, which was thoroughly presented by Joachim Bischoff, Bernhard Müller and Björn Radke in the “Auenland mit Sonne und Schatten” contribution. In the following, we will focus only on the study’s most important conclusions:
To sum up: many voters have been unhappy for quite some time with Angela Merkel and the CDU/CSU, but have postponed change for fears of instability. In the weeks running up to the election, and on the election eve itself, this self-restraint lost its effectiveness.
The SPD with Martin Schulz as its front-runner is the election’s big loser. Very much like in other European countries, German social democracy is handed the bill for its failed attempts at adapting the social state to the unleashed financial market capitalism. The chronic defeat of European social democracy has now also been confirmed in Germany.
The modernisation of capitalism to fit the social state model has long been the trademark of the SPD and European social democracy in general. The transformation of the working classes made the financialization of private households necessary and fuelled the illusion of a new middle class. The attempt by social democracy to create a third way with moderate deregulation and privatisation, contrasting with social democratic fundamental values, was a proven failure during the great financial crises. The readjustment of the European social security systems gives way to new forms of social inequality.
At a time in which neoliberalism and financial capitalism are acting uninhibitedly compared with the past, the future of capitalism regulated by the social state must be reinvented. The parties of European social democracy are experiencing difficulties in targeting the exit to the societal maze of modern capitalism, let alone finding it. The role of the SPD as an opposition party may contribute to establishing clarity in this respect. A return to the fundamental values of social justice will be necessary for that.
The forces to the left of the SPD – in and outside parliament – must not become weaker. They must set their own impulses and exert the necessary pressure to support this process.
Hamburg, 25 September 2017
A comprehensive election analysis will be published in issue 10/2017 of Sozialismus.de.
1. Cf. Sozialismus 9/2017: Joachim Bischoff/Bernhard Müller, Chancen des Rechtspopulismus in der Berliner Republik (“The chances of right-wing populism in the Berlin Republic”); Alexander Häusler/Rainer Roeser, Rechte Normalisierung? Die AfD vor dem Einzug in den Deutschen Bundestag (“Normalisation of the Right? The AfD in the German Bundestag”).
2. The AfD suffers from massive internal conflicts regarding its orientation. AfD chairwoman Frauke Petry does not want to adhere to the party’s parliamentary group. On Sunday, she won a direct mandate in Saxony. For quite some time, differences between herself and the AfD front-runners Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel have been documented.
3. Rheingoldinstitut, Stephan Grünewald: Gebremste Wut der Wähler, (“Curbing the voters’ anger”); See also: Stephan Grünewald, Die Deutschen wollen ihr Auenland solange wie möglich erhalten, interview with ZEIT ONLINE 26/07/2017. It is an in-depth analysis of the mindset of 50 German voters; 26 people took part in psychological in-depth interviews, the others in three group discussions. In the framework of a social media analysis, more than 90,000 contributions relating to the parliamentary elections were analysed.