In Brendan Simms’ 2013 work Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, he argued that the geopolitical history of Europe since the fall of Constantinople could be boiled down to the question of mastery over Germany. The land of the Rhein, Oder, and Elbe was the landscape whereby the political climate on the continent was consistently determined. It may be a somewhat crude or overly rigid formula when applied to all episodes of European history, but one cannot deny that there is a ring of truth lurking behind the sentiment.
A German politician is a European politician.The post-Merkel age will have enormous ramifications on the political landscape of the continent, the breadth of which is so engulfing it would be exhaustive to list them. It suffices to say that we have grown so accustomed to the concept of a Merkelian Germany that an authentic political pivot would be something akin to a Thomas Kuhn paradigmatic shift.
Take, for instance, The Financial Times’ build up coverage included pieces interviewing young voters to whom the face of Germany has forever been Angela. What was their vision for a post-Merkel Germany?
By and large they had none, Merkel being too much ensconced in their reality to adequately conceive of one. Where there was a vision it was predictably watermelon green, suburban, Berlinista; a sense that Merkel had ‘broken boundaries’ as the first female Chancellor, only to disappoint by ‘not being radical enough’.
For the greater mass of voters, the future seemed to be one more of trepidation than of hope. They had taken comfort in a personality which had come to define Germany’s confidence in an unwavering ‘centrist’ approach to 21st century politics.
Amidst the long goodbye, bugs had appeared in the code – the failure of her anointed successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to lead the CDU in this election as Chancellor-candidate an obvious illustration.
For the concerned elderly voters the stability candidate seemed to be the SPD leader Olaf Scholz, Finance minister since 2017, rather than the CDU’s Armin Laschet. Laschet has been fighting an uphill battle since becoming party leader in the spring, with suggestions of disgruntlement with Laschet’s handling of the pandemic coupled with a larger view that the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the CSU, had a stronger candidate in Markus Soeder.
Despite this sense of flux, the 2021 election didn’t reveal anything that could not be sensed from 2017. The results from last week’s vote have consolidated the idea that Germany’s two party system has given way to the era of the 6 party election.
What the SPD rebound has indicated is that the relative collapse of the traditional big two – SPD and CDU – has a floor. This floor is, admittedly, soft – reliant on the elderly voter share – but is not about to fall off a cliff edge.
In old West Germany it seems to be about 50% of voters who will not stray from the conformity of SPD or CDU. In the old East, the scene is less stable. The final result will likely see Scholz installed as chancellor – his Social Democrats edging the Christian Democrats by 25.7% to 24.1% respectively. Coalition negotiations will be long and difficult, but the most likely candidate seems to be a three party coalition whereby Scholz’s SPD will enter into a governing partnership with the liberal FDP, headed by long-time leader Christian Lindner, and the Greens, spearheaded by Annalena Baerbock (the Greens have gained 51 seats, mostly due to a collapse of the ex-Communist die Linke party). The AfD, never a coalition candidate, has dropped from 12.6% to 10.3%.
So no sea-change. At least for now. If the Greens do get into power through coalition, their behaviour and effect on the larger SPD will be of interest. Those elderly voters pooling their ‘stability’ vote to the SPDs may be surprised how a large legacy party can be swayed by an energetic fringe. During the campaign Scholz was letting out stories of how he had been a radical when he joined the SPD in the 1970s.
This was a ploy to appeal to younger, left leaning voters, who saw his career as one which had got absorbed by a gravitation to the centre, or in other words, a betrayal to the socialist cause, as they would see it.
The believer in Scholz centrism will hope that any sway from the Greens will be flanked by having the liberal Lindner, who will push to be Finance minister under any red-yellow-green ‘Traffic light’ coalition. Lindner will have his work cut out if he is to stem a leftward shift of the SPD.
What then for the castigated outsider AfD? Looking at the geographical breakdown of the vote they have a clear regional stronghold – namely Saxony. Look out beyond the Berlin metropolitan island and the old east has a political landscape closer resembling neighbouring Czech Republic and Poland rather than anything seen in Stuttgart or Hamburg. The aforementioned CDU-SPD floor is a lot lower in the east, coming in at a combined 37% of the vote, and this includes Berlin districts which would distort that figure.
So a creation of a party ‘heartland’ is critical to maintaining Bundestag legitimacy for the AfD, and Saxony is rich cultural and historical region of Germany; possessing the churches whose naves first heard the reverberations of Bach, containing the cities of Leipzig and Dresden.
Both cities, admittedly, are not as AfD strong as the smaller cities and towns, but neither are they flocking Green like the urban west. Being to Saxony what the CSU has been to Bavaria, effectively a one party federal state within the Bundesrepublik, seems to be the most realistic position going into 2020s Germany. If the CDU continues to hover at the current election figures post-Merkel, they cannot ignore the call of the east forever.
In the meantime, one must look at Germany and ask the question – has the centre held? It certainly hasn’t collapsed on election night. But coalition politics is a tricky and subtle business. Statements of change do not happen as an electoral headline. They sift as undercurrents in the corridors of the Reichstag and its environs. The climate agenda will continue to dominate discussion for the coming year. The emergence of Green party policies to enact that agenda, their interplay off a Scholz Chancellorship, and articles abounding on how German business is keen on this dynamic, is revealing. The centre holds, but shifts.