And the Winner Is … Um, Er.


Yet another thing the Germans do brilliantly. Up there with world-class engineering and caiparinha cocktails, we have German elections. Not one, or even two, but four winners!

Both Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Gerhard Schröder and Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader Angela Merkel are claiming to be the rightfully-elected chancellor. This despite their parties losing 27 and 25 seats and 4.5 and 3.5 per cent of the votes respectively, compared with their 2002 results. Meanwhile, the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) increased its vote to 10 per cent and the socialist Die Linke to 8 per cent. Only the Greens at 8.5 per cent saw no significant change in their support. Their leader, Joschka Fischer, promptly retired to the backbench (which makes all those election posters proclaiming Ja zu Joschka seem a little well, I don’t want to say dishonest, but ).

The result, as we all know by now, is a seriously hung parliament. Two-party coalitions are the norm in Germany, but with this election no two parties command enough seats to govern, except the SDP and CDU. Hence the sudden desire from these two for new friends. And what a colourful struggle it has been. The party colours (SPD red, CDU black, FDP yellow, the Greens green) have given rise to the possibility of traffic light coalitions (red, yellow, green), Jamaican coalitions (black, yellow, green) and so on.

Social Democratic Party leader, Gerhard Schröder

Social Democratic Party leader, Gerhard Schröder

What is clear, as the dust settles somewhat, is that the electorate is profoundly divided on fundamental questions regarding the future. Above all, it represents a division over ‘reform’ (surely there must be a word for reforms that take us further away from, rather than towards, a fair and just and equal society? Any thoughts?). The CDU, for example, lost votes to their traditional coalition partners the FDP, a party that represents the genuinely, even hardline, liberal forces in Germany. Merkel clearly wanted to go further in reining in the Social State. She was promising what we in Australia would call enterprise bargaining and unfair dismissal laws, as well as reductions in payroll taxes and income taxes for the upper brackets. The FDP, and its voters, wanted all of this and more.

At the other end of the spectrum, Schröder and the SPD, having already inflicted substantial cuts upon the Social State, were offering more of their special brand of steady-as-it-goes, piecemeal reform, declaring that their efforts to date were paying off, but if more were needed, then they were the most appropriate party to be at the helm: ‘strong but caring’, as they often put it. The result was that a substantial section of their electoral base bolted for Die Linke, which was opposed to all existing and future reforms, full stop.

There are three Germanys these days: those strongly for ‘reform’, those strongly against, and those in between. These are partly reflected in geographical zones. The heartland of the CDU is in the south, strongly Catholic and conservative, although even here the Bavarian sister party of the CDU, the Christian Social Union, dropped below 50 per cent for the first time since 1945. The north-west is strongly divided between the two main parties, with the cities and industrial regions remaining loyal to the SPD.

Christian Democratic Union leader, Angela Merkel

Christian Democratic Union leader, Angela Merkel

Most significant, perhaps, is the old East, where the reforms of the past 15 years have produced 30 per cent unemployment, where people work longer and ‘more flexible’ hours for lower wages, and where calls for more of the same evoke genuine horror. Here the SPD majority was challenged, not by the CDU (despite Merkel being an Easterner herself), but by Die Linke, whose vote went from 16 to 25 per cent.

It is, without doubt Die Linke that has been the real winner in this election. Despite Russell Salton’s comments on here on 5 and 20 September (many thanks for picking me up on the factual errors, Russell), I think Die Linke has done remarkably well. It increased its vote in the East beyond what might have been thought of as its natural limit and — remarkably — took the party over the 5 per cent hurdle in several western states, ensuring that it got seats in the parliament from there as well.

Going from 2 seats to 54 is unquestionably a big win. And their decision to stand aside from the coalition building seems to me to be smart and principled and a good thing for Germany (not that they had any choice really as both the CDU and the SPD explicitly ruled out any negotiations with them even after the election results came in).

Die Linke is right to be careful: the fusion between the PDS (the old East German Communist Party) and left-dissident Social Democrats is by no means complete, in part because negotiations were overtaken by the early election. Die Linke’s program is still very much a protest one — opposition without real alternatives. Much of its vote is a protest vote, too, I suspect. The time to think about a role in government will be after they have been tested at State elections in the west in March next year and after the program and party structures are in place.

There is no escaping the demand for predictions here. My bet is a Grand Coalition. Not much separates the right of the SPD and the left of the CDU, and if the Schröder-Merkel hate-fest can be managed by their people, an agreed program of reforms is not at all difficult to envision. The question then becomes: what happens on their outer edges? The FDP and Die Linke will be waiting, circling to pick up dissident activists and disaffected voters.

Russell Salton predicts interesting months. I would extend that to years.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.