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The 19th Bundestag: broadened political representation

28 Sep 2017 - 15:54
Source: Fexes / Flickr

On Sunday, 24th September, Germans were called to the voting booths to elect the next federal parliament, the 19th Bundestag. While the pollsters had not been far off, the huge loses of the ruling parties, as well as the big gains for the national conservative AfD, came as a shock to many. Until recently, Germany was considered one of the few bastions of mainstream, centrist parties left in Europe. While the Front National in France, the PVV in the Netherlands and the FPÖ in Austria all surged in the polls and, in the case of the latter, even participated in government, right-wing populism was kept on the political fringes in the German party landscape. The lack of a large far-right party, however, did not mean that there was no nationalistic, anti-establishment sentiment among the German population. Particularly Merkel’s refugee policy gave anti-Islam protest movements like PEGIDA a large following. Now, with the AfD voted into parliament, Germany is no longer an outlier among its European neighbours. The national and international media were quick to respond, calling these elections a ‘caesura’ for German politics, an ‘earthquake’ for the national party landscape and a ‘shock’ for the government, significantly hampering Merkel’s ability to respond to Macron’s ambitious integration plans for the EU. Beyond the sensationalist rhetoric, however, how can we explain the shift in political allegiances in Germany?

Bar Chart

 

Seat distribution

The diagnosis by the German media and centrist politicians

After the initial shock, the conclusion drawn by both domestic commentators and politicians was straightforward: parties on the extremes of the political spectrum are likely to benefit from grand coalitions. In a joint government, the centre-right and centre-left become increasingly indistinguishable, creating a political vacuum on the margins for insurgent parties to fill, fragmenting the party landscape as a whole. Hence the decision by the Social Democratic leadership to go into opposition seems the only sensible response to the election defeat. “For us, the grand coalition ends today,” party leader Schulz proclaimed in the immediate aftermath. But is the lack of polarisation in the centre really to blame for the rise of the AfD? This implies that centre-right voters opted for a far-right party (the AfD), while the centre-left voters opted for a far-left alternative (die Linke). However, the poor performance of the CSU, the Bavarian ‘sister party’ of Merkel’s CDU, which increasingly pandered to national conservative sentiment in its campaign, seems to suggest that adopting style and rhetoric from the AfD is not enough. ‘Voters will always stick to the original’ is the maxim in party politics, and the German elections exemplify that.

Fragmentation or expansion of the voter base?

Instead of focusing on the binary of right/left and its degree of polarisation or fragmentation, it is perhaps useful to see the political landscape as more flexible. Voters no longer identify themselves clearly on the right-to-left spectrum, as shown by the table below illustrating voter migration from 2013 to 2017.

 

 

Party gains in millions (baseline 2013)

 

 

CDU/CSU

SPD

Linke

Grüne

AfD

FDP

Party losses

CDU/CSU

n/a

-

90,000

30,000

980,000

1,360,000

SPD

20,000

n/a

430,000

380,000

470,000

450,000

Linke

-

-

n/a

-

400,000

60,000

Grüne

-

-

170,000

n/a

40,000

110,000

AfD

-

-

-

-

n/a

-

FDP

-

-

-

-

40,000

n/a

Non-voters

380,000

-

270,000

230,000

1,200,000

700,000

Gains/losses

-2,860,000

-1,750,000

+540,000

+470,000

+3,870,000

+2,910,000

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While there is some degree of uncertainty in these numbers, the overall trend paints a more complex picture than the simple idea that disillusioned centrist voters opted for extreme parties. The CDU/CSU did lose almost one million voters to the AfD. But far greater were the losses to the politically more closely aligned FDP (1.36 million). While the FDP is much more critical of Macron’s EU plans than Merkel’s CDU, it is a stretch to argue that voting for the liberals instead of the liberal-conservatives is a ‘polarisation’ of the centre. The so-called bürgerliche Lager (conservative-liberal/centre-right camp) has not shrunk substantially in Germany, but distributed itself across two different parties. This becomes clear when comparing the total share of votes of CDU/CSU and FDP in 2013 and 2017. Similarly, the AfD made large gains from the Social Democrats and the socialist Linke, the latter of which in particular is at the polar opposite end of the right-left spectrum from the AfD. The SPD also lost fewer voters to the socialists than to the far-right AfD. Neither of these trends shows a clear polarisation of centrist voters towards the more extreme counterparts as the one-dimensional right-left purview would suggest.

Mobilising non-voters

To comprehend the gains of the AfD (and the FDP) we should consider another source of support: previous non-voters. Here, the AfD managed to mobilise 1.2 million people, the FDP 700,000. This is far more than any of the other four parties, and shows the ability of particularly the AfD to politicise a large, mainly East German, demography that had previously not found a political home. Rather than ‘stealing’ voters from the political centre, both the FDP and the AfD have expanded the breadth of political opinions represented in the German political party system. In a sense, then, the next Bundestag will be more representative of the political persuasions in the German population than ever before. And with a total voter turnout of around 75%, there is still a large voter potential that, if tapped, could continue to reshape the political party landscape in Germany. This is by no means an isolated phenomenon: the Netherlands, France and Austria all have, on average, a voter turnout similar to that of Germany, and are therefore prone to the same political volatility as Germany.

Adrian Arab of the German newspaper Die Welt proposed an interesting thought experiment with regard to this large number of non-voters. If all the people who abstained in the recent elections were represented by one parliamentary faction, a majority government would only be possible if the CDU/CSU, the SPD, the FDP and the Greens formed a five-party coalition. While it is surely problematic to assume all non-voters to be a homogenous group, it nonetheless shows that, far from representing the entire breadth of political opinions in Germany, the five major parties would barely manage to obtain a majority. While there is a degree of fragmentation of the political party landscape, it is more useful to think of the German elections as signifying an expanded representation of previously un- or underrepresented political opinions, particularly of those forgotten ‘losers of globalisation’ in the East. Whether one likes those newly represented opinions or whether one worries about giving those opinions a national platform is a different debate, but their existence cannot be denied.

This publication is realised by Christian Schwieter, former research intern at Clingendael's unit Europe and the EU.

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