Guest International Slot: Focus on Germany

Guest International Slot: Focus on Germany

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    Will Hooker looks ahead to next year’s Federal elections

In the same way that the Holy Roman Empire was not holy, not Roman, and not an Empire, the current grand coalition government of Germany is not grand, not a coalition, and barely a government. Although its feuding members somehow managed to agree a budget for 2009, the entire focus of the next 12 months will be on positioning the parties for a general election next autumn.

    The main theme of the current political drama is the strange demise of the Social Democrats. Having finished neck and neck with the Christian Democrats in 2005, and captured several of the juciest government departments (including Steinmeier at Foreign Affairs and Steinbruck at Finance), the centre left has spent most of the past three years in a prolonged act of suicide. Recent polls show the SPD trailing the CDU in every single German state except Bremen and Brandenburg (where the Left Party has anyway eaten away at the SPD’s base). Party membership is at an all time low. In their traditional heartland of Nordrhein-Westfalen, membership of the SPD has now dropped below that of the Christian Democrats.

The decay at the bottom is mirrored at the top. SPD leader Kurt Beck’s personal polls are poor, and he shows increasing signs of losing grip on his own party, amid rumours that Steinmeier might replace him as Kanzlerkandidat next September. The party recently breached convention by fielding its own candiate for Bundespr√ɬ§sident against the CDU incumbent, apparently against Beck’s wishes. The move was widely seen as ending any possibility of government unity.

If the SPD are a busted flush, what are the likely outcomes next year? The Left Party and the Greens look set to consolidate their grip on the protest vote, and pick up malcontents who feel that the SPD has lost its purpose.

    More interesting is the fate of the traditional minority coalition partner, the Free Democrats. Hopes are high among FPD leadership that it will make big electoral gains after years in the wilderness. Although there is little mention of previous goals of 18%, double figures should be within reach. The electorate seem to be warming towards populist but error-prone leader Guido Westerwelle. At the very least he has brought publicity to the traditionally stilted and policy-wonkish party. They should also benefit from their traditional strength on economics, and from having been in opposition during this compromised period of government. Expect a strong showing.

The CDU remain strong everywhere, and show signs of consolidating a foothold in places such as Berlin and Saxony. Merkel enjoys widespread appeal, even if there is a growing sense in Germany that she fails to replicate her success on the international stage in the arena of domestic politics. The CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, look set fair to retain their hold on the Bavarian state legislature in elections scheduled for late September.

    The biggest challenge for the CDU is to maintain its credibility despite the shattered edifice of the government it leads. There has been some speculation that the Bavarians might pull the plug on the coalition, precipitating an early general election. Most commentators believe, however, that any of the coalition partners that does this will stand to lose most. The constitution also makes it difficult for an incumbent government to dissolve itself. At present, a slow march to next autumn seems most likely.

If the CDU/CSU and FDP can together reach the 50% hurdle, we will, of course, see the 10th coalition government between the two in post-war Germany. Present polling indicates that this is reasonably likely, but by no means a dead cert. If the possible centre right partners fall short, Germany could face a real headache. A possible partnership between CDU, FDP and Greens (a so-called “Jamaica” coalition, after the party colours) looks virtually impossible given the CDU’s recent commitments on nuclear power. The Left Party remain political untouchables (even for the SPD). And nobody has the stomach for a return to grand coalition politics. For a country that makes a virtue of political dullness, 2009 could be an interesting year.

Will Hooker is a British lawyer currently on secondment in Munich. He has also recently completed a PhD in International Relations.

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