FEPS Fresh Thinking

Some points on the German elections

1. Success for Angela Merkel’s personalisation of German elections!

Without doubt – this election result on Sunday represents a success for the playing out of the persona of Angela Merkel but this is not a victory for the party. The strategy of her campaigners paid off. The SPD did not have an appropriate strategy to counter this personalisation in the campaign.

2. Towards a new structure of the German party system!

A change has occurred in the German party system; firstly a personalisation of politics has become apparent. Secondly “Die Linke” strengthened its left wing vote in eastern Germany and also managed to keep a large bulk of its support in the west, where they had been expected to lose more. This party is definitely not a factor to neglect any more.
Thirdly the Eurosceptics achieved an impressive result and will now definitely be turning towards the upcoming European elections.
Fourthly the Liberals are the losers of the new set-up because they are no longer able to convince voters that they should vote for them. For them it will be difficult to come back in four years time.

On Sunday we probably saw the appearance of a new structure in the German party system even if the “normal” divide of 50% conservative supporters and 50% centre-left supporters remains after this election

3. The SPD is no longer winning!

The SPD has not been a winning party on the federal level since 1998. Sigmar Gabriel stated on Sunday night that the party has obviously not managed to return to the status of a “Volkspartei”. This is the crucial issue. The party is still not re-united after the Schröder loss in 2005; there is still a large fraction in the SPD who believe he betrayed the left with his ‘Hartz’ labour market reforms.

If there will be a grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD, the risk is that the junior partner, SPD will suffer and lose support amongst potential voters. This would most likely give further potential for Die Linke to become stronger and runs the further risk of the SPD losing its label as the “Volkspartei”.

If the SPD chooses not to go into coalition and Merkel isn’t able to form a government with the Greens, new elections would be called. If this becomes the case she will then most probably win with an absolute majority.

4. Credibility is the key to win!

The key question during the campaign was the question of “credibility” and this not only for Peer Steinbrück, but also for all parties and candidates. Has Steinbrück represented the party of the left? Was he the credible candidate when it came to social reforms, minimum wage or rising inequalities in German society? On further analysis, the personality of Steinbrück, his well-paid speeches to the banks and the finance industry, and his remarks on the pay of a Chancellor in Germany compared to industry bosses make it seem otherwise.
Similarly, the Green Party and their focus on taxes rather than on environment was not credible for the voters.

Another key problem of the campaign was the left orientation of the SPD campaign. Elections are always won in the centre!

The overall majority of the Germans do not see the question of the rising inequalities as their concern! Low unemployment, booming industry and better salaries for Germans did not create the desired mood of a need for change, as was hammered by the SPD campaigners.

For Angela Merkel the old story paid off. Elections are won in the centre. This is still valid and she got the support of the large majority of the middle class people!

Middle class people voted Merkel and CDU in in the interest of having their jobs secured and to avoid the higher taxes proposed by the Greens and the SPD. Neither of these parties managed to convince the middle class voters that the raise is only for the top incomes and therefore for only 5% of the population.

5. European issues had no stake in the campaign!

Credibility also played a strong role for the voters concerning the Euro and the handling of the crisis. Voters have not accepted Steinbrück’s critique of Merkel’s handling of the Euro crisis. The SPD always voted in line with the Merkel government in the Bundestag. You can’t then criticise her for not doing the right things to save the Euro single currency. The SPD was not credible concerning the Euro and Europe. Europe didn’t feature as a key issue in the campaign.

The European narrative based on a vision of solidarity and integration in contrast to the selfish and particularistic concept of the conservatives was not presented to the voters. A single statement that Europe is needed is not enough. The European Union was not the reference point of the SPD. The question is why? Andreas Gross, the Swiss political analyst published a very interesting article on that in the FAZ. I agree with him when he argues that there should have been a move of the SPD towards a federal Europe in the sense that voters should have a clear choice what they can expect from the party with regards to the EU. The SPD did not discuss the differences in the reform agenda of the Euro. Only the concern for German interests and priorities were in the debate. There was no debate on a European Germany instead of a German Europe or on the rise of new nationalism and populism in Germany and elsewhere. For the SPD, the AfD was a problem of the CDU and not an overall question of convincing the citizen on further European integration.

But even much more important is that SPD has not developed a narrative of Europe which countered new populism and new nationalism also in the perspective of the upcoming European election in May 2014.

Finally and this is unfortunate: Germany will continue to foster a more German Europe and will not become a more European Germany. This is the battle for the SPD and now even more on the agenda than before.

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  1. Ernst
    This is a great piece!
    Progressives who are pro European face a double challenge, both in Germany and in the UK, as well as elsewhere in Europe.
    We have to show the benefits of alternative policies for growth and jobs; at the same time, we need to show how Europe is part of the solution.
    Both tasks are difficult because public opinion does not see clearly the value of alternative policies for growth, nor understand benefits of more Europe. Though hard, the tasks are SO essential.
    We have 2 advantages; our analysis is solidly based on theory and empirical evidence, and we offer a message of hope

  2. Ernst
    You have done an excellent analysis of the German elections. My guess is that the SPD will, despite strong hesitations, join the government as “junior partner”, as you rightly say.
    it is up to the new members of governmments to leave a more convincing impact than from 200-09.

  3. Dear Dr. Ernest

    Your blog on German elections is spot on. I liked in particular your allusion to left-bias in the SPD campaign. Elections are indeed won on the centre. As a matter of fact, most social democratic parties in Europe are making this mistake. They are appealing to poor and the unemployed, which they should, but they must have messages for the rich and the middle class, which they do not seem to have.

    Your concern on Europe is subject of a deeper debate which the Foundations like yours is consistently engaged in. The question of “more Europe” has to be settled at intellectual and ideological levels, not party political level which will be influenced by elections. And we all know elections are not always fought on reasoning, but on perceptions of parties and posturing by leaders.

  4. I fully agree with your analysis. And what are the next steps? Soon, Angela Merkel will make an offer to the SPD to join her government as a junior partner. If the SPD hesitates, their will be a lot of pressure: “you have to join the government to garanty the stability of Germany, to counterbalance the CSU, do not wast opportunity to realaize at least a part of your political program……” If the SPD accepts to enter a coalition, it means suicide! In the next elections for the Bundestag, the SPD will harvest less than 20% of the votes. The strategy to resist to the pressure (and perhaps to the career hopes and power appetit of some “Genossen”), is to organize an inner-party gallup: “should we be a part of the Merkel government or not?”
    Michael Holzhauser

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