A Letter from Germany. Elections in Germany: Confusion Mounts!

By Peter-Joerg Alexander

Rudi’s definitely worried! Election posters everywhere remind German citizens that nationwide elections are due on 26th September, but he still doesn’t know where he’ll be putting his cross. It was so much easier during the last 16 years, when Chancellor Merkel ruled the roost. She and her centre-right party, the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU), were more or less perpetually on top, without any serious alternatives or challenges. Now things are different: Angela Merkel is just about to retire, leaving a big vacuum behind her – for Rudi and many others.


Three ‘Chancellor candidates’ have thrown their hats into the ring, but it’s far from clear where each of the runners currently stands in the federal election stakes. On the one hand, the polls show that the currently-ruling CDU/CSU won’t obtain enough votes to stay in power for another four years. On the other hand, Rudi and his countrymen are witnessing a topsy-turvy election race, in which five poll-topping parties – the CDU/CSU; the Social Democratic Party (SDP); the German Liberals, whose official name is the Free Democrat Party (FDP); the party of the Left, namedDie Linke; and the Green Party (Die Grünen) – are vying to form a government in coalition with some of the others. There is also the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which holds nationalistic views, and with whom no other political grouping wants to form a coalition in the German Parliament (Bundestag).


People in the UK and the US are familiar with the ‘first past the post’ Majority Voting System, which sees the Conservative, Labour, Scottish National and Liberal Democrat parties predominate in the House of Commons. Rudi’s countrymen think this is rather unfair, since the SNP received less than 4% of the popular vote in the 2019 General Election but obtained 48 out of 620 seats in the Commons, while the LDP, who were supported by 11.5% of the voters, won only 11 seats. Germany on the other hand uses a mixed electoral system, combining the Majority Voting system with a Proportional Representation (PR) system whereby the various political groupings submit lists of aspirants to parliament and the people choose between parties, not individuals. Under the PR ballot, the percentage of votes garnered by the parties as a whole counts, enabling a grouping to enter the Bundestag as long as it achieves at least 5% of the total popular vote. The 5% threshold was introduced in the light of the disastrous experience of the post-WWI Weimar Republic, but that’s another story.


A total of 60.4 million Germans (31.2 million female, 29.2 million male) are eligible to vote in the 2021 General Election, a slight decrease on the last elections due to the fact that since 2017 more voters have died than youngsters who have reached voting age in the meantime. Some 2.8 million young people – accounting for 4.6% of total voters – will be first-time voters. Older citizens carry more electoral weight as a cohort, with those aged 50 and upwards accounting for almost 58% of voters, versus just under 28% for the 30-49 age range (see table below). So the old in Germany – who normally tend to be the more conservative voters – largely determine the future of the young!


Right now, however, Rudi has the distinct impression that, in the run-up to the elections, the politicians are focusing from morning till night on just two issues – Covid and Climate Change, or alternatively Climate Change and Covid! The debaters come across as strident, narrow-minded, fear-mongering and overbearing. Of course, recent environmental disasters show that we need to do everything possible to safeguard our wonderful planet. However, Rudi does love statistics – a typical German tendency – and they may be helpful here. Germany is responsible for just 2% of worldwide CO2 emissions, compared with China’s 28%. If Germany were to concentrate on avoiding these emissions, considerable damage would be inflicted on the national economy, to the delight of our Asian competitors. Nevertheless, the parties keep banging on almost hysterically about how they intend to deal with the climate issue. Then there’s Covid. About six months ago the media were concentrating hard on the lack of vaccines; now they’ve switched their attention to those people who hesitate to be vaccinated, refuse to wear masks, or are reluctant to keep their distance from others. This seems a never-ending story…and one that’s getting more air-time than it reasonably deserves.


Meanwhile there are other topics that definitely do merit discussion. Deficit spending, for instance. Billions of euros have had to be pumped into the economy as a consequence of the Covid restrictions, and further billions are now to be channelled into aiding the victims of recent floods. The more money gets printed, however, the higher inflation will rise. Today it stands at roughly 4% but nobody seems worried about the decreasing value of the currency and the consequent expropriation of both consumers’ purchasing power and savers’ wealth. Rising prices and higher costs are going to impact people’s pensions, especially those of poorer people. Yet neither the German Central Bank nor the European Central Bank are so far taking any serious counter-measures.


Another issue facing Germany is the technology crisis. German high-tech companies are now increasingly lagging behind US, UK, Japanese and Chinese firms. Schumpeter’s creative destruction has become an unwanted stranger, while whinging worrywarts prevail.


Immigration is also a basic policy issue that ought to be debated. The Greens especially want to open the door wide, ignoring the risk of undesirables – or criminals – flooding into the country if applicants are not carefully vetted. The flow of Afghan refugees is bringing new pressures in this field. Meanwhile security and the needs of the existing population are neglected subjects – to which few seem to pay much attention.


Foreign policy is another field that merits serious discussion, especially considering that the Left party, a potential partner in a future three-party governing coalition, has come out in favour of leaving NATO and reducing the military budget – to the consternation of the other European NATO members. If there’s one thing Rudi is pretty sure about it’s that there will be a great deal of amusement in Beijing and Moscow at these antics. Reports of the German electoral debates are sure to put leaders there in an excellent mood!


So, who are the three politicians who aspire to the post of Chancellor now that Mrs Merkel is finally standing down and giving someone else a chance? CDU/CSU candidate Armin Laschet appears to be unacceptable to most voters, so his prospects of becoming Chancellor now seem very slim. Meanwhile current polls indicate that the parties now in power – the CDU/CSU and SPD – will probably not jointly obtain enough votes to continue with their coalition government, although the older generation are probably still hoping for this rather conservative outcome. If the CSU candidate Markus Söder – who is widely seen as charismatic and a true leader capable of following in Mrs Merkel’s footsteps – had secured the CDU/CSU nomination, older voters would almost certainly have backed him, but the CDU executive committee ignored the polls and selected Laschet. Rudi sees this move as clear evidence of the arrogance of the mighty. Of course he knows that the party’s policy programme ought to be the central consideration for voters. Nevertheless, since – to coin a common phrase – a fish begins to stink from the head, it’s all about Laschet and close to 90% of German citizens are against him, including Rudi! Of the two other declared candidates, Green Party hopeful Annalena Baerbock is young and dynamic, but she was recently caught out faking her CV, amongst other things. So, in spite of being, according to the New York Times, “the most boring man in the country”, Olaf Scholz and his Social Democratic Party are now gaining ground. Polls show that the SPD, though formerly pronounced dead, might secure 30% of the ballot – enough to form a coalition with the Greens, the Leftists, the Free Democrats, or once again with the CDU/CSU.


All in all, Rudi doesn’t see a lot of enthusiasm among his countrymen. He’s not the only one who’s confused and he’s not the only one who still hasn’t decided whom to vote for. He’ll make up his mind on polling day. But he’s not quite ready to give in to despair. He still hopes that rational ideas will prevail; so he’s still looking forward to seeing the election results in a few days time.


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