The Election Campaigns Have Started … a bit

Another year of grand coalition, another year of required co-operation before the next general election in September 2017. Yet, the coalition partners have started their campaigns. Or have they?

Still another year until Germany’s next general election in September 2017 – another year of grand coalition. And already, Germany’s big traditional center parties, CDU/CSU and SPD, are beginning to campaign. The initial position is awkward. Both parties currently operate in the conflicting nexus of grand coalition on the one hand and their respective election campaign on the other. For next year, another grand coalition is all but a desired result… but a very likely one. Consequently, the election campaigns are conducted half-heartedly. The parties have to differentiate from each other while at the same time not slamming the door for potential future co-operation. But that is not all: even more interesting are both parties’ struggles with inner divisions. The social-democrats need to reconcile the party’s elite with its basis and position itself for the 21st century’s challenges. The Union is all but united, too – mainly over refugees and immigration. Additionally, the right-wing populist AfD has established itself as the Union’s serious contender for conservative votes. The forthcoming weeks will tell what issues are going to be at stake. Maybe the selection of a successor for the parting Bundespräsident, Joachim Gauck, will provide a first direction for next year’s show down.

The election campaigns have started…a bit.

The SPD-Campaign’s Soft-Opening

The stage at the SPD’s Willy-Brand-Haus in Berlin featured an odd duo. According to subsequent news coverage, one of them a refreshingly charismatic poster-child of social justice in Germany. The other: Sigmar Gabriel. Indeed, Gabriel’s interlocutor, the cleaning lady Susanne Neumann, somewhat stole the SPD-leader’s show at the event, which was designed to kick-off next year’s election campaign. Her blunt remarks on the party’s failure to protect low-income workers from poverty in retirement hit a spot. Particularly, since they illustrated at least two of Gabriel’s dilemmas.

Firstly, Europe’s oldest democratic party needs to adjust to pressures of globalization, while still catering to its traditional voter-basis of low-to-medium skilled workers. Particularly labor-market reform was deemed necessary in order to equip Germany against competition of emerging markets during the early 2000s. However, such adaptations have alienated many of the Social-Democrats’ grass-root voters. Many of them have yet to pardon former Chancellor Schröder’s (SPD) market liberalization, which has led them into temporary employment and now endangers their retirement benefits.

Gabriel’s second dilemma is the SPD’s awkward situation as a member of the governing coalition on the one hand and the need to commence the 2017 election campaign – also against its coalition partner– on the other. Therefore, the kick-off at the SPD-headquarters inevitably came across as half-hearted. The Social-Democrats attempt to position themselves as advocates of social justice in order to demarcate themselves from the CDU. However, Gabriel knows that he is still required to co-operate with the Union on a variety of issues, such as migration and integration reform. Further, for the next coalition it seems unlikely that the SPD will govern without the CDU. As a consequence, the campaign’s tone must remain modest in order not to endanger a probable future coalition.

In addition to these dilemmas, it does not help that Gabriel’s position as the SPD’s leader is under substantial pressure, too. Recent rumors about his resignation have quickly been repudiated but did not necessarily contribute to re-affirm his position. The party itself, according to polls, is currently at meager 20%. Finally, there are no volunteers to challenge seemingly almighty Angela Merkel next year.

The conversation between Gabriel and Neumann vividly illustrated the division between the SPD’s elites and its voter base. The split is rendering the party paralyzed. It will be a challenging task for Gabriel to lead such an alienated SPD through the upcoming campaign without losing further ground to competitors. As of now, however, a vaguely designed strategy between CDU-appeasement and base-voter-schmoozing is doomed to fail.

Alternative for Merkel?

Sometimes, when an old couple is divided over the fundamentals of their relationship, small issues become a question of asserting dominance. The Union’s discussion on a meeting point to establish at least a fragile peace before the election season kicks off appears as such an alleged negligibility. The seemingly trivial question was discussed ferociously. Concessions on either side might be interpreted as weakness…and weakness translates into the loss of voters.

The stakes are high for the old couple – Angela Merkel’s Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU) and Horst Seehofer’s Christlich Soziale Union (CSU). The latest results of provincial elections in the states of Baden-Würtemberg, Rheinland-Pfalz and Sachsen-Anhalt did not bode well for the approaching general election in 2017. Too many voters have been lost to the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Seehofer has taken the frustrating results as a re-confirmation of his anti-Merkel rhetoric over the refugee crisis. Ever since, there is not much union left.

The CSU’s attacks mainly concern Merkel’s decisions regarding the refugee crisis. Her handling faced severe resistance – next to the AfD mainly from within her own party. While the traditional oppositional parties as well as coalition partner SPD supported her decision not to close German borders, Merkel’s own party became increasingly divided over the issue. Ultimately, right-wingers pressured Merkel into forging the Turkey Deal. This in return was frowned upon by left-wingers, who deem Turkish President Erdogan an authoritarian extortionist. Either way, the integration of refugees will play a key role in the forthcoming election campaigns.

What does this mean for next year’s general election? On first sight, Merkel’s increasing isolation might become more obvious. Interestingly, however, the Union’s division may end up securing her another tenure of office. Merkel’s stance on the refugee crisis has caused much liking among German liberals. While on the right the CDU has lost voters, Merkel’s strategy gained many on the left, as parties such as SPD and the Greens are themselves divided over refugees. Her success will therefore depend on the Union’s ability to re-acquire conservative voters. Seehofer’s right-wing rhetoric might end up tipping the scale in favor of Merkel when it comes to persuading conservative voters who would have, without him, opted for the AfD.

As often the case with old couples, dissension is followed by reconciliation. Sometimes for a lack of an alternative. Especially for seemingly almighty Merkel, however, an alternative is not in sight. The possibility of a flirt with Frauke Petry’s AfD can be excluded for both sister parties. It might turn into a nasty affair too easily.

By Benjamin Matthes

Picture credit:

left by Olaf Kosinsky (Eigenes Werk) [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (httpcreativecommons.orglicensesby-sa3.0dedeed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons Union
right by Harald Bischoff (Eigenes Werk) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (httpcreativecommons.orglicensesby-sa3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Markus Weidling

Managing Partner, Germany

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