Germans Are Heading to the Polls: A Preview to the 2017 Election

by Kai Weiss

The 2017 German federal election is almost upon us: This Sunday, September 24, Germans will go to the polling booth and vote for their representatives in the Bundestag, i.e. the parliament, and eventually, their Chancellor.

With that, it’s high time to take a close look at what will, could, and should happen on Sunday.

1. Where We Stand

In the most recent poll (as of this writing), the result is predicted to be as follows:

Bildschirmfoto 2017 09 19 um 22.59.38

There are, however, notable discrepancies between different polls. In all likelihood, the CDU and its Bavarian partner, the CSU, will finish between 35 and 40 percent, the SPD in the 20 to 25 percent range, and the remaining four parties all around ten percent. (There are certainly more than these six parties running, but all others will finish easily below the five percent threshold.)

2. Everything Will Stay the Same…

“The race for first place is over, Angela Merkel will stay Chancellor.” This came from Christian Lindner, the leading candidate of the FDP, seven weeks before the election. The outcry of all other parties and the media was big – how could he say such a thing? – but it’s nonetheless true.

It has been clear for quite a while: The CDU will win in a rout and Angela Merkel will stay Chancellor for a fourth term – and it won’t even be close. Meanwhile, the SPD will further slump at around their new 25 percent normalcy.

In this sense, everything will stay the same. And since this was clear already weeks and months before the election, the campaign has been quite a bore. Angela Merkel and the CDU have tried to win over voters the same way they have done since the Merkel era began: they bring stability, they are in the center, the prosperous times Germany has had under Merkel will just continue.

Bildschirmfoto 2017 09 19 um 23.23.58

Yes, there will be some “minor” crises like having to bail out Greece, adopting a costly energy transition, or subsidizing a huge artificially created migration wave, but otherwise it’s been pretty great, right? And so it is no surprise that the “conservative” CDU has changed its slogan from “Die Mitte” – which literally means “The Center” – to “So that Germany continues to be governed well” (yawn).

To find the reason why this approach has worked, one has to look no further than to Merkel’s opponent from the social democratic SPD: Martin Schulz. Schulz is a textbook example of a Eurocrat. After being mayor of the small city of Würselen (a position he got elected to unopposed and where he sunk millions), he became a MEP at the European Parliament in 1994. Since then, he lived exclusively in Brussels, and from 2012 onward was President of the Parliament.

He stepped down early this year, because suddenly he had a bigger task at hand: becoming Chancellor. It didn’t look bad at first, and in spring he was head-to-head with Merkel – people already spoke of the “Schulz effect.” But that short success story probably only came about because not too many Germans even knew him – he was a mysterious, exciting new guy. When voters got to know him, though, it quickly turned around.

Admittedly, it is a tough job to campaign as the man of the people, of the workers, and the unions, if you lived on taxpayers’ money a few hundred miles away from your people for more than two decades. Not even all the free goodies you want to hand out help anymore in this situation (see box on the right which the Legatum Institute compiled in their great election preview).

3. … But A Lot Will Change

As much as will stay the same, there will still be significant changes come Sunday. For that we need to look at the current seat composition of the Bundestag:

As shown above, there are currently only four parties in parliament – and all of them are on the left of the political spectrum. Die Linke (The Left) is farthest on the left, being the former governing party of communist East Germany. Then there are the Greens who are like most Green parties in the world: simplifying a bit, they are economic interventionist mixed with a heavy dose of Al Gore-type environmentalism. And then there are the two major parties, the CDU and SPD, who agreed to form a Grand Coalition at the beginning of the tenure.

This is one of the main reasons why Angela Merkel’s third term has been so far on the left. Since Merkel doesn’t really have any principles of her own, she just changes her opinion to what she sees as politically most expedient – even if the complete turnaround on a position happens in one night (as on nuclear energy and the refugee crisis).

In the last four years, the only parties who could pressure her were on the left of her. And so it was no problem to introduce a minimum wage, lower the pension age (despite the system bursting soon), the continuation of the costly and heavily subsidized energy transition, and financing over one million refugees, to name just the Best Of – all the other parties could do was demand an even more extreme approach.

All this will change soon, since two new parties will get into parliament: The right-wing AfD, which will make its premiere in the Bundestag, and the “classical liberal” FDP, which will make a comeback after failing to get over the five percent threshold in 2013. Suddenly the situation could be the following (to use the poll from above again):

Bildschirmfoto 2017 09 19 um 23.10.33

4. The Two Wild Cards: The AfD and FDP

With that, the AfD and FDP could change everything.

The AfD is a fascinating case, and a close look at the party has already been taken on this page last week. It is often seen as a far-right party in the same way as the Front National in France, but that is not the case. Instead, the party still has surprisingly liberal economic policies. One of its two leading candidates, Alice Weidel, sees herself as a “conservative libertarian” – and talks more about the excessive monetary policy by the ECB and the failing euro rather than refugees.

There are still quite a few weak points including the hawkishness on Islam and refugees. The biggest problem, however, is the personnel: Ignoring Weidel and the handful of other Liberalkonservative, the party mostly consists of members much farther on the right who can be counted more to the collectivist right, not being related in any way to classical liberalism. Nonetheless, despite the fact that one shouldn’t get his hopes up too high when it comes to the AfD, the newcomer could still have positive effects in opposition to Merkel, pressuring her to more conservative policies.

The FDP meanwhile is a party well-known in German politics. The current term is the first since 1949 where the self-proclaimed classical liberals missed out on seats in the parliament.

But a lot has changed. For one, the party has basically become a one-man show: Christian Lindner, a 38-year youngster, is the new leader. He resurrected the party and with him at the helm, the FDP has returned to the German political conversation.

Lindner has been featured on Politico and The Economist, and over at CapX Bill Wirtz even wrote that Lindner could be the one who brings back “small government, balanced budgets and individual liberty” to Germany.

This goes a bit too far – one just needs to take a look at the party’s manifesto and can quickly spot several problematic points from a classical liberal view. But it indeed seems like Lindner is different than most of the youngsters who have had success in the last years – the so-called “Hipster Populists,” as Franco Martín López dubbed them, from Barack Obama to Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron, and Leo Varadkar – and not just because he often talks about market solutions, and an individualism which needs to be regained in Germany.

What’s most surprising is his realism. This is most evident on two topics: foreign policy and the European Union.

On foreign policy, he has said that “We should not settle for spectating at a spiral of escalation and military build-up. Time and again there must be possibilities to get out of this spiral.” That’s why he has proposed to freeze the Crimea conflict, try to cooperate with Russia in the Middle East, but nonetheless see the US as the main ally with which cooperation should be intensified regardless of its President.

On the European Union, he has argued that Greece should exit the euro, that debts in the eurozone should not be communalized, that when it comes to Brexit, it’s important not to punish the UK, but look at what’s best for both the EU and Britain, and overall, he sees the EU more as what it was planned to be: a cooperation scheme of sovereign nations instead of a new United States. It’s no surprise then that Politico wrote that when “it comes to his economic vision for the European Union, Lindner is the ‘anti-Macron.’”

5. No One is Interested in the EU – But Everyone Should Be

Sadly enough, though, this EU realism from Lindner won’t play too big of a role. Even after Jean-Claude Juncker’s frightening State of the Union speech last week, Germans still don’t really care about what’s going in Brussels. As a YouGov poll conducted after the Juncker speech showed, reforms of the European Union is one of the least important topics for Germans in the upcoming election.

This is shocking since we will see much movement on that front post-election time – even days after the voting, as Macron announced to present his own proposals next Tuesday. Discussions on the “Euro for all,” a common budget – or at least a monetary fund, a finance minister, super-president, a common foreign policy, transnational lists and much more could then start off immediately. And most of the proposals made by Macron and Juncker would be to the detriment of Germany – and to economic liberty overall.

In a sense, there could be no more important topic. And while the CDU and SPD – and even the Greens – are on deck with many, if not the majority, of the proposals, the Left, FDP and AfD are much more critical about ever more integration.

6. What Should Be Hoped For

Everything will stay the same. Angela Merkel will stay Chancellor for a fourth term. The SPD will again be the second strongest party. The left-wing Greens and Left will still be in parliament as opposition parties (in all likelihood – a coalition between the CDU, FDP and the Greens is possible, but unlikely). Maybe we will even see another Grand Coalition between the CDU and SPD.

But a lot will change. Two new parties will find their way into parliament and will drastically change the political debate. Despite having (many) weak points of their own, there is still hope when it comes to the entry of the AfD and FDP. It is unlikely that, come another refugee crisis, Merkel will decide the same way with the AfD in the opposition. It is unlikely that Germany would agree to Juncker’s and Macron’s utopian EU proposals with the FDP in the opposition or in a coalition with the CDU. And this is why on Sunday, despite their very own failures, strong showings of the AfD and FDP could be beneficial. Merkel would be pressured not only from the left, but finally from the right and the classical liberal side as well. It would result at the very least in a more conservative, hopefully final, tenure of Mutti. It’s all one can hope for at this point.

Kai Weiss is an International Relations student and works for the Austrian Economics Center and Hayek Institute.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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