Has Germany reached a turning point? Whither the SPD and the arrival of political euroskepticism

September 27, 2013

(Michael Sohn/Associated Press)

Continuing our series of election reports, the following German post-election analysis is provided by Benjamin Preisler, who most recently obtained his second M.A. from the College of Europe. His pre-election report on this election can be found here; additional post-election analysis from The Monkey Cage is available here.

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As I argued in my background information post, the 2013 federal German elections may be seen as yet another indication of the volatility of the Berlin Republic’s (post-reunification) party system — what Oskar Niedermayer had called a fluid five-party system. Notwithstanding “the curious sleepiness of the […] campaign,” participation rose just a bit from 70,8 percent to 71.5 percent. Merkel’s party Union (as the combination of CDU and CSU is called in German; obviously no link to the American Civil War) almost won an absolute majority of seats in the parliament with 42 percent. (Check here for a nice interactive graph of voter movements between parties). This was the case because the Union:

1. Absolutely feasted on its desolate liberal coalition partner FDP (taking more than 2.4 million votes from them);

2. Benefited from Merkel’s popularity and her parties’ perceived problem-solving skills in the economic realm (unemployment and the economy; but also the eurocrisis) in drawing additional votes from the whole political spectrum (920,000 from the SPD, 560,000 from the Greens, and an astonishing 1.5 million from 2009′s non-voters).

Apart from Merkel’s impressive all-around victory, there are two other important developments to take away from this election.

First, the SPD has paid a heavy price for the ideological convergence and the decreasing polarization of the German political system. It essentially undercut its very existence as one of the two more or less equal major poles in German politics due to the – liberalizing – Schröder reforms. After 34.25 percent in 2005 and 23 percent in 2009 in the wake of its participation in a Grand Coalition, the party has now obtained 25.7 percent. With a triparite split of the left vote, the AfD taking in additional protest votes, and the SPD having difficulties to paint itself as a true alternative, it is unclear how the party can overcome this decline.

Second, the AfD of course almost entered parliament, thus joining a well-documented wave of euroskeptic parties in Europe (although the AfD claims to be only Euro-skeptic but in favor of European integration otherwise). Following the True Finns in Finland, Geert Wilder’s Freedom Party in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen’s Front national in France, and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, eurskepticism has also now arrived in Germany.

What is interesting to note here is that for the most part these are the debtor, and not the creditor, countries and that none of these has undergone such harsh austerity as Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain, or Latvia did. All of those countries – with the exception of the truly extreme case of Greece and its Golden Dawn party – have been much more stable electorally, which is odd in light of Barry Eichengreen et.al.’s seemingly common sense analysis of right-wing political extremism in the Great Depression, which finds it “is greatest where depressed economic conditions are allowed to persist.”

The AfD managed to garner more than 2 million votes by attracting a highly diverse 430,000 voters from the FDP, 290,000 from the CDU/CSU, 340,000 from Die Linke (!), 180,000 from the SPD, and only 150,000 who previously had not voted. To underline this heterogeneity, a closer look at results in Berlin shows that the party won about as many votes in an upper middle class neighbourhood such as Steglitz-Zehlendorf (5.3 percent) as in a relatively poor, high-unemployment one such as Berlin-Lichtenberg (5.5 percent). This clearly was a protest vote with 44 percent in one survey believing that the party “won’t change anything but at least names problems.”

With elections for the European Parliament in May 2014 only having a 3 percent hurdle for parties to overcome and historically lower participation rates, as well as better scores for smaller parties in these secondary-type elections, a continued presence for the AfD at least in the mid-term seems almost assured. This is also because all regional elections in 2014 will take place in the East German Länder where the AfD polled strongly. From a European perspective it will be interesting if the party joins forces with Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen to form a – on the surface paradoxical – pan-european euroskeptic alliance “rooted in a broader authoritarian worldview that also includes higher levels of nationalism and hostility to ‘outsiders.”

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University. He specializes in voting, partisanship, public opinion, and protest, as well as the relationship of social media usage to all of these forms of behavior, with a focus on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
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Gregory Koger · September 26, 2013