The German Election Aftermath: New Landscape for German Parties

Q&A with Friedrich Löhr: Ambassador and Faculty Lecturer in the Global Studies and International Affairs Program

September 30, 2013 

Ambassador Friedrich L. Löhr joins a number of other senior diplomats now teaching in the Global Studies and International Affairs program at The College of Professional Studies (CPS). His 37-year career led him to represent Germany as Ambassador to North Korea, Chargé d’ Affaires in Nigeria and Deputy Chief of Mission in Beijing, Khartoum, and Algiers. He will teach the new East Asian Area Studies course this winter. 

1. Is German Chancellor Angela Merkel now, as French newspaper Le Monde writes, the “Chief of Europe?”

She will remain the most influential person managing the Euro since her bid to lead the next German government won clear popular acclamation. Her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), with its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), won 41.5% of all votes — an increase of 7.7%, the second-highest gain since 1949. But she missed an absolute majority in the Bundestag (the German parliament) by nine seats. Coalition-building is proving to be a difficult exercise: Merkel’s most likely partner will be arch-rival the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).  With 25.7% of the vote it gained less ground than it had hoped for. 

About 48% of all Germans are hoping for a Grand Coalition, but it’s another story for SPD members, who remember how the party got bruised in the last Grand Coalition. It got little credit for its part of governmental achievements and its compromises on key issues such as basic salaries and taxes. Some SPD members might prefer a coalition with the Greens, an ecology-oriented party with lots of conservative values. But an SPD-Greens ruling coalition would also need the votes of the “Left,” a party with its regional stronghold in eastern Germany who draws supporters of the former communist regime. The SPD leadership has always excluded political co-operation with the “Left” at a federal level, and will probably poll its members on potential partners before mid-November. A third option, a coalition of Merkel’s victorious CDU/CSU and the downsized Greens, looks unlikely. The programmatic chasm between them is probably too wide to bridge. The result of the German election is thus full of ambiguities. 

2. What about the libertarian “Free Democrats”, the Chancellor’ s incumbent coalition partner?

The Free Democratic Party (FDP) is suddenly in an existential crisis. They fell from 14.6 % in the last election in 2009 to 4.8 %, short of the 5% quota established by law. For the first time since the foundation of Federal Germany in 1949, they have been unceremoniously voted out of Parliament. No longer in their almost traditional role of “king-maker,” they will have to re-establish credibility lost over broken electoral promises and endless squabbles among their top personnel. Many of their traditional voters defected to the two popular parties CDU and SPD – and even to the very new anti-Euro party “Alternative for Germany” that drained votes from Merkel and had a frighteningly good showing at 4.7%.

3. If mini-parties polling below 5% were again to be allowed into the Bundestag, would the problem be solved?

No, because the people want them to remain outside the Bundestag.  Although seven million votes went to the almost 30 parties below the 5% threshold and were effectively wasted, the large majority of Germans wants to keep the entry barrier at the present level. One positive result was the negligible vote for the radical right-wing parties who remain ostracized from parliamentary life.  This election has been more transformational than it looked. It will bring about a new formation of the landscape of German political parties. The headline of a New York Times op-ed on September 17, 2013 titled: “Is Angela Merkel Too Boring for Germany?” might thus almost be re-phrased: “Are German Party Programs Too Boring for the Electorate?”

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