In recent years it seems as though governments all over the world are crumbling and political instability is the common denominator observed around the globe. From nuclear powered dictatorships to broken democratic superpowers, there is a power vacuum where the world’s elite used to be. Brexit, annexation of Ukraine, rise of populist movements across the globe and constant realignment have forced us to abandon traditional structures and seek solace elsewhere. The only exception and the shining beacon of progress through all of this lies at the heart of Europe, in the form of Germany. But in light of the current elections, it seems that is set to change as well.
How the German Election Works
Over the years we have come to expect a certain degree of complexity and sophistication from any system rooted in Germany. The voting system for electing its Bundestag — the lower house of parliament is no different, it seeks to combine the benefits of both direct and proportional representation while guarding against the electoral mistakes of German history, which saw political fragmentation during the Weimar Republic between WWI and WWII.
But what does this mean for the uninitiated? The German election process goes a little like this - Every German citizen over the age of 18 is eligible to vote. That's 61.5 million people in a nation of roughly 80 million and while you take a minute to marvel at the demographics, this is the part where the complexity is woven into the electoral fabric - Every voter has 2 votes, the first goes directly to a candidate from one's constituency and the candidate with the majority of votes wins a seat in the new parliament, while the second vote is how the voter indicates support for a party. Each party's share of votes determines its portion of seats in the parliament. To build a government, a party needs the majority of seats and parties usually form a coalition. The coalition representatives then use their majority to elect the Chancellor.
When Angela Merkel announced her bid for a fourth term as Germany’s Chancellor, she claimed she still had ‘more to give’ as a public servant, but it was obvious from the outset that the voting public was beginning to sour on the two largest parties: Angela Merkel’s CDU, the Christian Democratic Union, a center - right party - and SPD, the Social Democratic Party led by Martin Schulz. Since 2013, the two parties had governed together in a grand coalition, meaning any issues with the country the electorate was feeling could easily be assigned to the two parties running the show. So it was no surprise when both Merkel’s CDU and Schulz’s SPD lost part of their vote share, remaining the largest parties in the Bundestag, but nonetheless ceding ground to smaller parties in the election. Notable among them, the AfD, Alternative for Germany, the FDP, Free Democratic Party, a classical liberal party- the Linke, the left, as you might guess a leftist party, and the Grüne, the environmentally conscious Green party.
Germany's unfortunate political past has been a source of general weariness towards populism despite some general discontent among the electorate. This isn't to suggest that mainstream parties are in complete agreement; different parties of course have different visions for the EU to be very brief the die linker for example is a strong leftist party that stands against the Lisbon Treaty and many of the EU economic ideals in a protest against neoliberal economics. It does not disavow the social aspects of European integration however the SPD and the greens share a similar vision and advocate reform. The Greens obviously stress on environmental reforms more strongly while the CDU and the FDP seek a competitive Europe and economic progress with the FTP advocating a European federal arrangement. The point is no mainstream parties with representation in the Bundestag are Euroskeptic.
As the largest vote getter, Merkel had the right to seek out coalition partners and form a government, but problems began immediately. Already, Martin Schulz had made it clear that SPD did not wish to continue as part of Merkel’s governing coalition, meaning she would have to seek out other partners. So the next most logical choice was a three-party coalition between Merkel’s CDU, the FDP and the Greens. This was deemed the “Jamaica” coalition on account of the colors of each party corresponding to a color on the Jamaican flag. But talks between the three parties were complicated. Not only was the FDP, a party more likely to oppose state intervention in the economy and odd bed fellow for the Greens, a party dedicated to further environmental regulations but the two of them were negotiating a deal with Merkel’s CDU, a party already in an ongoing alliance with a more conservative Bavarian Christian Union, called CSU. If you’re having a hard time wrapping your head around juggling 4 parties of varying ideology, so did negotiators. That’s why talks between the parties fell apart not long ago, raising the prospects of new elections.
Calling a new election in Germany isn’t easy. When similar political drama occurred after Spain’s 2015 elections, when Spain’s largest party, the partido popular was unable to form a coalition, the King of Spain just dissolved the Spanish Parliament and new elections were held in early 2016. It’s way more complicated in Germany. After an election, the Bundestag selects a Chancellor with a majority vote. If this doesn’t happen, the Bundestag has 14 days to try again and again and again to make someone Chancellor with a majority vote. If this still hasn’t happened after two weeks, the Bundestag takes one final vote. If someone gets a majority in this vote, they’re made Chancellor. If not, the Federal President can choose: make the person with the most votes Chancellor, or finally, dissolve the Bundestag, calling new elections. And if Merkel could form a coalition, but then have it break down, this gets even more complicated between elections.
Germany has struggled with issues of migration, but overall, it has been party to low unemployment and even a budget surplus as many of its partners in the European Union have been plagued with dwindling prosperity and budget deficits. With President Trump, Brexit, Russia and so much going on in the world, Germans don’t want their government to become another point of instability. That’s why social democrats under Martin Schulz agreed to come back to the table and reconsider another grand coalition with Merkel and CDU. As a result, Mrs Merkel’s conservatives have been forced to cede major government positions to their coalition partners, with the SPD due to take the foreign, finance and labour ministries in a new government. The SPD will also get the justice, family and environment ministries as part of the coalition deal, according to reports. The CDU will get the economy and defence portfolios and, in a move designed to stop more voters turning to the right wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, Mrs Merkel's Bavarian ally Horst Seehofer - who takes a tough line on immigration - would become interior minister.
The Looming Threat?
A right-wing nationalist and Populist Party called the AfD, the Alternative for Germany, opposed to Merkel’s policies on the refugee crisis of 2016. They rode anti-establishment sentiment to 12.6% of the vote and gained nearly 100 seats in the Bundestag, making them the 3rd largest party and the official opposition if CDU and SPD strike out for another grand coalition. There’s an irony here: in Germany’s desire for stability, they’ve created relative instability.
What does this mean for Germany and the EU?
Regardless of the outcome, for the time being, we will see a Germany that is inward focused and consumed with its domestic political affairs. Merkel’s ability to exert strong leadership in Europe and at the international stage has been hampered and will be limited since she will need to focus on forming a coalition or campaigning for new elections. German foreign policy is on autopilot and with it are pressing issues, such as Brexit, Russia and Ukraine. For the rest of the continent, the situation means that any European Union reform efforts will be put on the backburner for the time being. At a time when Europe is struggling with the rise of populism across the continent, Germany has so far been a beacon of relative political calm. A return to the normal state of German politics seems distant, and we have to reconcile Germany’s “new normal.” A new government in Berlin will eventually emerge but for Europe this means that precious time and opportunity will be lost as we wait to find out its exact composition.