Angela Merkel. Photo: Jonas Schönfelder Angela Merkel. Photo: Jonas Schönfelder / Adapted by Shabbir Lakha / CC BY 3.0

As Germany prepares to go to the polls, Kevin Ovenden assesses the fragmentation of German politics

Germany goes to the polls on Sunday to elect a new government and a new chancellor to replace Angela Merkel who has held the equivalent post to the prime minister for 16 years.

For most of that time, her centre-right, Tory-style, CDU party has governed with the centre-left, Labour-type SPD. It is highly uncertain what governing combination may emerge out of Sunday’s vote. It takes place under a system of proportional representation. It may be that wrangling to form a new governing coalition takes months, as it did four years ago.

The fundamental reason for that is that Germany is far from the caricatured image of a stable, prosperous society with a cast-iron political system.

In fact, this election, while not involving any major insurgent campaign, is set to lead to a more fragmented party system and the underlying concerns of working-class people are barely addressed.

For most of the post-war period, the (West) German electoral system could deliver very stable governments of either the CDU or SPD or one of them in coalition with the minor liberal FDP or later the Greens.

Then over the last decade or so it has required both the two historic national parties of government to come together to form a majority coalition. It has been dominated by Merkel.

Now, if the results are remotely like the polling, it is going to take three parties to form a majority in the parliament. There are three or even four potential coalitions.

That’s because the two main parties are in the low to mid-20 per cent range. The Greens, who had briefly surged to that level earlier in the year are on about 15 per cent. The right-wing liberals on 11. The fascistic AfD is about the same. And the radical left Die Linke on 7 per cent.

Already the recovery of the Labour equivalent, the SPD, from a low of 14 per cent to about 25 in the polls is being hailed as a restoration of the kind of capitalist centrism that is promoted by Keir Starmer in Britain. The very welcome decline of the far-right AfD to around 11 per cent is also cited as evidence as to the end of the populist tide and upheaval of the middle of the last decade – the sudden eruptions that gave us Trump and Corbyn, Syriza in Greece and Brexit in Britain.

But this election is unlikely to register a return to the centre, but rather a fragmentation across the party system and a gap between voters who want some change, but also security in hard times, and a governing outcome that could not be more uncertain.

Where once a single party could govern, now it seems certain that three parties will have to come together to form a government. We shall see on Sunday. But it is not the usual image of German stability that is projected. Nor is the social reality in Germany the stereotype of prosperity and complacency. The export-led economic boom that Merkel inherited has come to an end. The cuts to welfare and labour rights to pay for it are hitting home. There is as in much of Britain and in Ireland a huge housing and rents crisis. This social crisis was well apparent before Covid-19 and the far-right AfD sought to build out of it four years ago. It had some success but has also faced determined mass opposition. Crucial to that have been forces of the left. The Left (Die Linke) Party has been a key part of anti-racist and social struggles in many areas.

But it has seen its support squeezed and has had to grapple with a major strategic argument about how it breaks beyond the core support it has. That is of two types. In the regions of former Eastern Germany generally, voters have an attachment to what they see as a welfarist past under the old system. And in the more populous west, generally more radical voters.

The rise of the Greens under the outgoing CDU-SPD coalition certainly grabbed space that the radical left sought to fill. But the Greens response was to shift sharply to presenting themselves as a governing coalition partner in waiting – they are already in office in parts of Germany.

The result of that appears to have been to rehabilitate the SPD under its effective candidate Olf Scholz even though they share responsibility for the policies of the outgoing government.

Perhaps the biggest issue is that the election campaign up to now has revealed a serious decline of the Tory-style CDU which has dominated German politics before and after unification for 70 years. It has lost support to the far right, to those not inclined to vote and even to the Greens, whose economic conservatism and social liberalism was attractive to some centre-right voters who thought the CDU was adapting too much to the racist far right.

It would be foolish to make hard assessments before the results of a fragmented and volatile election. But what is certainly the case is that the image of Merkel bestriding a stable country and by extension European Union has been revealed to be a mirage. And nowhere more so than in the decline of her party which for decades was able to bolt together capital, small business, much of the middle class and working people on a conservative basis.

What the impact of all that is we shall need to see with the results and after. But some things are clear. Paradoxically, a boring election marked by the gaffes of the centre-right candidate is full of interest on account of the splintering it reveals. And that splintering combined with the unmet demands of working people in Germany is likely to lead to a period that is the exact opposite of the restoration of steady as she goes old-style neoliberal centrism.

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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