•  A brief guide to the German election: Merkel's coalition crossroads [PDF]
  • By Matthew Elliott & Claudia Chwalisz
  • September 2017
  • Published by the Legatum Institute


With British voters choosing to leave the EU and Donald Trump’s election as President, 2016 led to a widespread interest in understanding populism and its economic, cultural and political causes. Although we have not witnessed the same level of political shock in 2017, the Dutch election in March and the French election in May both showed that the ground continues to shift away from the mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties that have dominated European politics for decades.

As part of his Senior Fellowship at the Legatum Institute, Matthew published a guide to each of these elections, exploring the underlying factors contributing to the support of the populist left and right in the Netherlands and France. In this report, published on the eve of the Bundestag election, we try to answer another relevant question: why has populism failed to take off in Germany? The extreme forces on both sides of the political spectrum have remained at the fringe, despite Germany facing the same forces of global change as its neighbours. We explore to what extent this is down to Angela Merkel’s leadership or historical and economic reasons.

In stark contrast to the exciting elections elsewhere earlier this year, in Germany, many have described 2017 as a ‘sleepy’ election campaign. While journalists have lamented the lack of stories to cover and opposition parties have campaigned fruitlessly, Angela Merkel spent the summer hiking and the last few weeks lying low. As with previous elections, this is her campaign strategy, embodied in one of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU)’s posters: “Enjoy the summer now, and make the right choice in the autumn,” says a young woman lying carefree in a meadow. Merkel has essentially depoliticised German politics. Once again, her plan is working. The CDU has been polling comfortably at around 40 per cent for weeks; Merkel is by far the preferred Chancellor over the Social Democratic (SPD) candidate Martin Schulz. Yet this does not mean that Germany is a perfect country with no problems to be solved. There
are plenty of issues which could be at the fore—the struggles of the German car industry; the need for infrastructure upgrades; questions around big data relating to surveillance, control and manipulation; increasing pressure to deal with an ageing society; and what to do regarding sanctions against Turkey. Many of these have been largely ignored by the campaigns.

The biggest issue to have grabbed the headlines has been the diesel crisis. Five car companies are being investigated by the European Union for antitrust violations. Moreover, the current CDU-SPD government failed to react after it was revealed that Volkswagen had cheated in emission tests. During the first week of August 2017, the government organised an emergency “diesel summit” between government officials and carmakers. This led to an agreement for the latter to install new software to lower some emissions as well as the creation of a new €1 billion fund to invest in non-polluting municipal transport. It is questionable whether this was the right outcome, or merely a sticking plaster.

Additionally, many European questions are being ignored, most notably Eurozone reform and refugee policy. Merkel’s campaign team are perfectly aware of all the potential issues that could harm her popularity, especially migration. On that front, they have been sending the message that the Chancellor is paying close attention to the situation in Italy. On her return from holiday, one of Merkel’s first engagements was to meet with the chiefs of the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration.

At this stage, the race for Chancellor is over. Merkel will win a fourth term, though her power will be diluted as six parties are set to enter parliament. The interesting question is the direction in which Merkel chooses to take her next government, as she will not win enough support to govern on her own. A re-run of the CDU-SPD arrangement is not impossible. But neither party wants this. Given the current state of opinion polls, it would also leave the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) as the strongest party in opposition with a powerful voice for the next four years—a situation similar to UKIP’s pressure on the British government in 2015.

Otherwise, with the three main options being a ‘black-yellow’ coalition with the economically liberal Free Democrats (FDP), a ‘black-green’ coalition, or a ‘Jamaica’ coalition with both the FDP and Greens, the country could go in very different directions. Any will change Germany.

The choice of coalition partner reflects a wider cultural struggle for the country. Migration, foreign policy, environmental issues and labour market regulation are some of the key dividing lines between the Greens and the Free Democrats. The former is to the left and the latter is to the right of the CDU. It might be that Merkel does not much have much choice in the matter if the polls are correct: small fluctuations of one or two percentage points will make all the difference. This is why the election is more exciting than at first glance.

We hope you find this brief guide to the German election useful and, as ever, we would appreciate any feedback you might have.

Read about the French elections here.

Read about the Dutch elections here.