How The German Election Reflects Limited Choice And Suspicion Of Change
Next Sunday sees Germany go to the polls. Breaking with tradition of bringing you practical content to help expats like you deal with various issues you may encounter or struggle to understand as part of your life in Germany, I decided this week instead to explain why Chancellor Merkel seems almost certain to be re-elected, even after 12 years in office.
In keeping vaguely on topic, I will try to explain how the German election reflects limited choice and suspicion of change: Two cultural traits which I have observed to be common in Germany.
Firstly, the DIN Norm mentality I have experienced of people often being encouraged to think and act in the same way as the consensus or prevalent culture. I have found this especially common in the workplace, where creativity and pragmatism is often discouraged in favour of following set rules and processes. This limited choice is also manifested in other ways. A cursory trip to a typical German supermarket will often leave you thinking “is this really one of the richest countries in the world?”. If you've ever been grocery shopping in the UK, US, France or Spain, the lack of choice in your neighbourhood Rewe or Edeka is pretty astonishing.
Another example is the press, which anyone who speaks fluent German and has a reasonable knowledge of politics can confirm is overwhelmingly in the political centre. There is no major publication or media outlet that takes a more Eurosceptic view or more populist positions on both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum. On a personal level, I can honestly say that to read a balanced, more critical opinion of German politics and state of the nation (in German), I turn to the Swiss press.
A lack of realistic alternative options to a fourth Merkel term is just another example of this limited choice phenomenon and its cultural entrenchment. It's just the way things work here and it's unlikely to change anytime soon. Which neatly brings me onto the next topic.
It can also be argued that a deep-seated suspicion of, and sometimes outright resistance to change is engrained in the German psyche. A nationwide ban on Sunday shopping, a culture of paying cash, coupled with a relatively low penetration of e-commerce in Germany compared to North America and other EU countries are all examples of this. Another example is the German consumer's willingness to continue to pay for bank accounts with a traditional bank, when products are out there which are readably available for free.
Let's take a look at the workplace again. Non-core functions such as IT and Facility Management are for the most part outsourced by large, multinational corporations. Whereas more traditional, mid-sized German companies tend to still do all of this in-house. Now I'm not suggesting at all that one way is always better than the other, but the reason for this difference is rarely that these firms have tried the alternative, had a bad experience and then gone back to the previous solution. Rather it is a desire to maintain the status-quo. If it ain't broke, don't try and fix it.
The same logic can be applied to Merkel's leadership. She has been in power for 12 years, the country is doing reasonably well insofar as macroeconomic data shows, so why the need for change?
Who is Angela Merkel?
Merkel, 63, has been Chancellor since 2005. Born in Hamburg, she grew up and studied in East Germany and is both the first female Chancellor as well as the first former East German to hold this office. Merkel holds a PhD in quantum chemistry and is the daughter of a Protestant (Lutheran) Minister.
Germany’s Election System In A Nutshell
It is important first to have a helicopter view of how Germany’s electoral system and government works. The system is based on proportional representation, essentially meaning that every vote counts, except for a few nuances relating to small parties who do not make it into parliament. Parties have to receive a 5% share of the vote to enter the Bundestag (the lower house of parliament).
There are no “wasted votes” in Germany as a result of the first-past-the-post constituency based parliamentary system in the UK, or the electoral college system in the US. One of the main consequences of this is that coalitions and compromise are inevitable. Since the founding of the Federal Republic after WW2, never has one political party gained more than 50% of the vote and been able to govern with a majority on their own.
There is no maximum term a leader can serve in office, unlike in the US. Governments are elected for fixed 4 year terms. The checks and balances in place in the German electoral system are strongly influenced by Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and how he implemented a totalitarian state with relative ease.
Whole books have been dedicated to this topic, so anyone wanting to read more on the German electoral system in an easy-to-understand, concise article should refer to Wikipedia or Der Spiegel, or a more dry version on the official Deutscher Bundestag website.
Who Are The Alternatives?
The only political party who can realistically, albeit unlikely, challenge Merkel for the office of Chancellor are the Social Democrats (SPD). All of the other parties, of which it looks like 6 that will enter the Bundestag, are too small on their own to seriously have any chance of forming a coalition as the senior member.
Christian Democratic Union (CDU)
Merkel's party is traditionally a centre-right, moderately socially conservative party. However, under her leadership, they have moved firmly onto the centre ground of German politics, swiping some popular initiatives from parties on the left (rent controls, abolition of nuclear power, legalisation of gay marriage, open-door migration) and rebuffing calls to reform i.e. liberalise the tax code. Their Bavarian sister party, the CSU, with whom they work together at a national level, remains more socially conservative and traditionalist, with an open scepticism towards Merkel's refugee and migration policy.
The Left (Die Linke)
Hard-left party with roots in the East German Communist regime and anti-establishment movement. Supports a utopian view of free everything for everyone and taxing the wealthy (defined by them as anyone who earns over €75,000 a year), to pay for it. Also proposes banning arms exports to unsavoury regimes i.e. Saudi Arabia, and a conciliatory tone towards Russia.
The Greens (Die Grünen)
Their core reason to exist remains the ecological-environmentalist movement but they have grown beyond their protest-vote base of the 1980s to become a viable alternative, mainly to the SPD. Typical base is younger, urban and more educated voters, as well as a possible alternative to Die Linke for socially and environmentally conscious voters who do not support the harder left anti-capitalist agenda.
Social Democratic Party (SPD)
Left-of-centre party with their roots in the trade union movement and traditional manufacturing industries, who have recently under Martin Schulz's bid for Chancellor moved further to the left, in order to distance themselves from Merkel’s land-grab of the political centre. Policies tend to favour statist and big government solutions, along with more redistribution of wealth to the poor and lower-middle classes. The last social-democratic Chancellor was Gerhard Schröder, who governed from 1998 – 2005.
Free Democratic Party (FDP)
A classical liberal party, both socially and fiscally. The FDP is a business-friendly, small government party which promotes deep-seated reform to the taxation system, as well as embracing digital technology and cutting Germany’s infamous bureaucracy. Core base: Small business owners, young professionals, urban and well-educated.
Alternative for Germany (AfD)
Hard-right, socially conservative and the only openly Eurosceptic party in mainstream German politics. Has become more hard line on its attitudes towards Islam and mass immigration since the 2015 migration crisis, and strongly opposes gay marriage. Conciliatory towards Putin and Russia (together with Die Linke). Seen as toxic by all the other parties, none of whom would consider going into coalition with them.
Why Merkel Will Almost Certainly Win
Part of the reason why Merkel remains so strong is the lack of a credible opposition.
Her party has governed in a grand coalition for the past 4 years together with the SPD, the party of Martin Schulz, her main challenger for office this year. Together these parties make up around two-thirds of the vote. The current official opposition in the Bundestag consists solely of the Greens and the Left. The FDP and AfD last time round did not cross the 5% hurdle which is required to enter the Bundestag.
There is no credible opposition on the right for those who understandably feel queasy about voting AfD. Many voters consider them to be unelectable, due to what is considered to be a hard-right agenda in a country with a difficult history in its shadow. So that leaves a fairly significant portion of the electorate who have been put off by Merkel’s move to the centre of German politics who are thinking “none of the above”. This is a pretty big chasm in the political spectrum, which could well be reflected in a higher percentage of non-voters.
Many will simply vote for Merkel for no other reason than as a tactical vote to avoid a hard-left coalition. The SPD is barely distinguishable from Merkel’s CDU on many important areas of policy. Where they do differ, they are only offering tweaks in most cases to existing positions taken by the current coalition government led by Merkel. There is nothing particularly radical or visionary in the SPD's manifesto. Because Schulz is the only realistic challenger, this is why the German election reflects limited choice. What terrifies people who are in the centre and right-of-centre into voting for Merkel is the very real possibility of a coalition with Die Linke and the Greens if Schulz were to win.
Experience And Stability vs. Stagnation
On the one hand, this gives stability and broad consensus, especially in a volatile world dealing with Brexit, President Trump, Putin’s Russia and no doubt the next Greek crisis which is never too far around the corner. But it can also be argued that it leaves government at the lowest possible common denominator. Compromise is so entrenched into everything they do that nothing really gets done. A cursory examination of how badly Germany’s infrastructure needs investment, or how the tax, healthcare, education and pension systems are in desperate need of some radical thought and innovative ideas, shows that Germany cannot be complacent with its current levels of prosperity and economic success.
France has elected Macron on a fresh, centrist platform, demonstrating that a “change candidate” doesn’t need to be a left- or right-wing extremist. Whether he can deliver change remains to be seen. Nobody said reforming France would be easy! Spain is booming and unemployment is coming down. The more fiscally liberal economies of Central and Eastern Europe have educated workforces and improving infrastructure, and can flourish if they are able to tackle some of the deep-rooted structural problems and corruption.
Merkel may be credited by people on all sides of the political spectrum as being a pragmatic leader who rules with her head, rather than following a particular vision or set ideology. However, against this backdrop, can Germany really afford 4 more years of no doubt steady economic growth, but ultimately paying the future price of kicking the can even further down the road when it comes to dealing with longer-term structural problems?
The Least Worst Option
So while Germans for the most part, or at least those which I have spoken to, don’t seem overly keen on Merkel staying as Chancellor, they don’t seem particularly anti either. There doesn’t seem to be a rush to the smaller parties in any significant number to drive Merkel to take bolder positions on certain issues. Schulz doesn’t offer anything significantly different to those who could be tempted to vote for somebody else.
There is no large political movement clambering for change and challenging some of the more conservative aspects of German life, or demonstrating against vested interests. Neither is there a significant challenge from those wary of Merkel’s open door immigration policy. For sure, she will lose some votes to the FDP, Greens, AfD and The Left, but very unlikely to be enough cumulatively to threaten her from governing for a fourth term.
Looking at this as an outsider on the inside (does that make sense?), I can only relate this back to the extreme caution with which the Germans seem to view any change and thus how the German election reflects limited choice. Whether that means adopting more customer-orientated service attitudes, embracing electronic payment technology, or doing something as simple and seemingly obvious as making government services more available online.
Small, baby steps rather than a big bang have been a very successful model over the years in Germany. Only time will tell whether a fourth Merkel term will be a blessing of stability and pragmatism in an unstable geopolitical climate, or a curse in a rapidly changing world of Tesla, Google, Smartphones and the “gig economy”, which will require decisive (and possibly divisive) action and bold decisions to be taken.