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Looking forward to the German elections – a tale of three paradoxes

By Dr Ed Turner.

The 2013 German elections will be eagerly watched. Even if the battle between the Chancellor Angela Merkel of the ruling Christian Democrats and her Social Democratic opponent, former finance minister Peer Steinbrück, doesn't have quite the glamour of Sarkozy against Hollande, Germany's central role in the politics of the entire Eurozone makes the election incredibly important. However, radical change, and a leftward shift, is extremely unlikely, for the reasons this post sets out, and the Social Democrats, in particular, find themselves in a desperately difficult position.

First, some background: for most of the post-war period, changes of government were far more likely to be prompted by a coalition partner's change of heart than an election. Specifically, the liberal FDP played the role of "king-maker", alternating between the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) – alongside its Bavarian CSU sister party – and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). Since the mid-1990s, that changed, with the FDP positioning itself as a market-liberal ally of the CDU/CSU, and the Greens becoming the SPD's natural coalition partner. 1998 therefore saw a change of government brought about by an election, with Helmut Kohl's CDU/CSU-FDP coalition ousted by an alliance between Gerhard Schröder's SPD and the Greens.

In 2002, Schröder's coalition pulled off an astonishing victory, successfully shifting the terms of political debate away from his (mediocre) economic record towards his attitude towards Iraq (rejecting German involvement) and flooding in eastern Germany. In 2005, Schröder's luck ran out. He was forced to hold an early election after losing the support not only of the CDU/CSU-dominated upper house of the German parliament, but also a sizeable chunk of his own backbenchers over the controversial Hartz reforms to welfare. The CDU/CSU, by then with Angela Merkel at the helm, managed narrowly to overtake the SPD, but was then forced to invite precisely that party into a "grand coalition". It would have preferred an alliance with the FDP, but that would not have given Merkel the majority she needed, as, put together, the SPD, Greens and the Left Party had more seats, yet a coalition involving the Left Party – a diverse and colourful grouping even by the standards of the far left – was unthinkable for the SPD and the Greens. The 2005 to 2009 period was unkind to the SPD, which found held in a tight embrace by Merkel's CDU, and lost its distinctive profile (while Merkel's party trimmed to the centre ground). As with previous grand coalitions – both in Germany and abroad – the 2009 election saw the two parties forming the government lose out to their minor competitors (the SPD, with 23%, getting its worst post-war result), and the Greens, Left Party and FDP all performed strongly. The SPD's implosion, coupled with the FDP's strength, this time allowed Merkel to form her preferred coalition with the FDP, an alliance which has bumbled along since.

As things stand, only two scenarios appear likely after September's elections. The first is a continuation of the existing CDU/CSU-FDP coalition. A few months ago, with the FDP in chaos, this seemed unlikely–minister was openly calling for the head of his party leader, it looked likely to get well below the 5% threshold required for seats in the German parliament, and its occasional policy interventions look like they might even provoke Chancellor Merkel to look elsewhere for a coalition partner. But after a surprisingly good result in a state election in Lower Saxony and a compromise having been reached in the FDP's leadership crisis, polls suggest that the continuation of the centre-right coalition is a possibility.

The other potential scenario is a further grand coalition. This would occur if neither the CDU/CSU and FDP, nor the SPD together with the Greens, secures a majority, because of the presence of parties that neither would be willing to do business with. This might be the Pirate Party, but this appears to have imploded in internal strife (currently hitting just 3% in the polls – a far cry from its successes in state elections over the past couple of years). More likely, the Left Party will act as the "spoiler" of a centre-left or centre-right majority. The Left Party remains unthinkable as a coalition partner for the SPD, and even Left Party support for a minority SPD/Green government was ruled out by the SPD's leadership.

And here lies the first paradox: the SPD's best chance of getting back into government lies in becoming the junior partner in a grand coalition. Yet precisely that role took it to its worst post-war election result back in 2009. It is almost guaranteed to lose its profile in a coalition alongside the CDU/CSU under Merkel, and its party members would likely become demotivated due to the sort of compromises necessary in such a coalition, with left-wing support haemorrhaging to the Left Party (or perhaps to the Greens). So the first paradox is that the SPD's long-term interests may be served by losing out on joining the government this time around.

A second paradox is that voters wishing to issue a left-wing protest against austerity, if they vote for the Left Party, make the formation of a grand coalition more likely. Such a grand coalition will do very little to change the course of politics. Parties of the left and centre left might end up with a majority of seats in the German parliament, but this is most unlikely to result in the format of a left-wing government.

A third paradox is that, while debate over austerity in Europe rages, this is not the defining feature of the German election campaign. Notwithstanding a few rhetorical flourishes from the SPD's leader, Sigmar Gabriel, the SPD's campaign will certainly not include a full-frontal assault on austerity or suggest a radical shift in Germany's course. There will be pledges to stabilise the banking sector (with a reiteration of German support for a Europe-wide tax on financial transactions), a desire to reduce inequality and support for a minimum wage across Germany. The draft manifesto presents interesting ideas about setting minimum levels of social and educational expenditure for EU members. But those hoping to see a radical shift in Germany's approach to the Eurozone crisis are likely to be disappointed.

Faced with these three paradoxes, Germany's election looks more likely to be a footnote in history than a European turning-point.

Dr Ed Turner, Lecturer in Politics at the Aston Centre for Europe, April 2013.