One of our regular features here at The Monkey Cage is to provide pre and/or post-election reports written by political scientists on elections occurring around the world. The goal of this series has to give social scientists with an in-depth knowledge of particular elections a chance to write something about those elections that is more than just a quote in a newspaper article but appears more quickly than the one to three years it often takes for an academic article to be published. The larger goal was to try to develop an understanding among interested readers (including journalists) that they could come to The Monkey Cage in the immediate aftermath of elections for research-informed commentary on elections. Past election reports can be found here (for now). Moving forward, election reports at the Washington Post will include the tab “election report.” Worth noting is that these reports tend to be longer than typical blog posts. So not as easy to digest quickly, but a great reference for quickly bringing yourself up to speed on an international election!

With that in mind, we are pleased to present our first post-election report at our new home on the 2013 German parliamentary elections. The report is written by University of California at Merced political scientist David Fortunato.


Heading into Sunday’s parliamentary election in Germany it seemed nearly guaranteed that incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel and the (center-right Christian Democratic) CDU/CSU would win a plurality of seats in the Bundestag and therefore retain the chancellorship (prime ministry). Despite a rough four years, fraught with threats to the Euro coming from Southern Europe and Ireland and internal divisions over nuclear energy  and embarrassing public works debacles, the country has grown steadily since the 2009 fallout and this has been reflected in Merkel’s strong and remarkably stable lead over her competitors (see the plot below). Further, Germans, by all accounts, seem to agree that Merkel is competent and best suited to handle Eurozone challenges. Indeed, this time last year, in the midst of the Euro crisis, 75% of SPD supporters and 70% of Green supporters – the primary challengers to Merkel’s cabinet – believed that the Euro was “in good hands” with Merkel at the helm.

Figure: David Fortunado
Figure: David Fortunado

Given that the chancellorship seemed to be a lock, why would we care about last Sunday’s election? The answer is the performance of the junior partner in Merkel’s cabinet, the FDP (liberals). The liberal party had its best performance ever in a national election back in 2009, but had fallen on hard times and was polling dangerously close to the 5% threshold (in Germany, parties who fail to win 5% of the national party vote are denied any seats at all in parliament) leading up to Sunday’s contest. The figure below shows that, although the FDP’s popularity had been trending upward, they seemed to be just as likely to fall below the threshold as above.

Figure: David Fortundao
Figure: David Fortundao

Indeed, despite the positive upward trend, the probability of failing the threshold was thought all the greater given the drubbing the FDP suffered in the preceding week’s state elections in Bavaria, where they managed to win only 3 percent of the vote. Making matters worse for the FDP was Merkel’s campaign of discouragement for the typical strategy of asking CDU/CSU supporters to “donate” their second vote (Germans get one vote for an individual parliamentary seat and a second that goes to the national list) to the FDP – a strategy that was quite successful in 2009, but had backfired in recent state elections. And fall below the threshold they did. The FDP managed to secure only 4.8 percent of the votes and will therefore be left out of parliament for the first time since their postwar formation (leaving the CDU/CSU in the unfamiliar position of being the right-most party in parliament).

Sunday was all the more exciting for it. For several hours during the voting and counting, ZDF, ARD, and several other German media outlets were predicting an outright majority for Merkel and the CDU/CSU, which would have lead to Germany’s first ever single-party majority government. Alas, that is not the way the Lebkuchen crumbled. The Christian Democrats, despite being propelled by Merkel’s popularity and the failure of the FDP and two upstart parties (the anti-Euro AfD and the freedom of information Pirate party) to secure seats (therefore shrinking the number of effective votes to divide into seats), fell just short of a majority.

Figure: David Fortunado Figure: David Fortunado

So what happens now? By all accounts, Chancellor Merkel and the CDU/CSU preferred to continue governing with FDP. As Die Linke (Germany’s leftmost party) had publicly committed to not supporting an SPD-Green coalition (the most likely alternative to another CDU/CSU led government), and the SPD and Greens returned the sentiment toward Die Linke, the most likely outcome seems to be that the CDU/CSU will partner with the SPD (social democrats) in the second Grand Coalition in three elections. It is likely that such a pairing would provide a stable government for the next 4 years (although, stability has not really been a concern in Germany – it has been over thirty years since a cabinet dissolved ahead of its time) despite less than enthusiastic support for another Grand Coalition in the SPD. Though this pairing may not seem to be very popular with supporters of either party, several have suggested that this would be the preferred outcome for most of Europe, especially the south, as it may soften German demand for austerity in ailing countries as well as a review and reevaluation of EU competencies.

If I was a betting man, I would put my money on a CDU/CSU – SPD coalition (I also would have bet that the FDP would clear the threshold, so take that with a grain of salt); the alternatives just seem too unlikely. But these two parties are not without their history. Some in the SPD believe that coalition with Merkel is a poison pill. After their previous go round from 2005-2009, the SPD posted their worst electoral totals ever – the same thing that just happened to the FDP. Add to this that the SPD is still dealing with internal divisions over the rightward movement of their identity stemming from their agenda during the Schröder years (“Agenda 2010”) and this may be an uncharacteristically lengthy set of coalition negotiations.