Zukunft der Demokratie Debattenbeitrag

Germany: Haven of stability?

A closer look at the European election results reveals some worrying signals, especially from the perspective of the big parties CDU/CSU and SPD.

Given the populist earthquake in other countries, the main message of the European election in the biggest member state is that more than three out of four Germans voted for clearly pro-European parties. The anti-Euro-party “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD) fell below worst case scenarios and received 7% of the votes. And compared to previous European elections, voters did not use this one to protest against the governing parties.

For the SPD, 27.3% of the votes felt like a victory, as it is a 6.5 percentage point increase from 2009. Merkel´s CDU/CSU suffered a small drop from the previous EU election and ended up with 35.3% of the votes, while the turnout rose to 48.1% (from 43.3%). The result fits well with surveys showing an increasingly optimistic view of many Germans with regard to the EU and the Euro – as well as the overwhelming approval of Chancellor Merkel´s crisis management.

Is Germany, hence, a haven of stability? A closer look reveals some worrying signals, especially from the perspective of the big parties CDU/CSU and SPD.

First of all, the CDU/CSU may not have lost many votes compared to the previous EP-election, but it received 6.2 percentage points less than in the federal elections in September 2013. The success of the AfD cannot be compared to the Front National or UKIP, but it has enough strength to shake the foundations of the conservative party, which lost far more voters to the AfD than any other party. It was the former chairman of the CSU and Minister President of Bavaria, Franz-Josef Strauss, who famously said there must not exist a party in the political space to the right of the CDU/CSU. The AfD has the potential to prove him wrong.

Of course, it is far from certain if the AfD party leadership can resolve its severe inner-party battles. Also, it is an open question as to how its electorate can be held together, encompassing protest voters, relatively wealthy economically liberals, as well as conservative voters alike.

But what makes the AfD so dangerous is that it is not a classical right-wing populist party with a charismatic leader, which could easily be attacked and denounced, especially given German history. Party chairman Bernd Lucke is a conservative professor of economics who comes across as unpretentious and stuffy. The ideological essence of the AfD is not based on cultural or anti-immigrant claims, but on the economic theory of ordoliberalism: the AfD stresses the economic competition between nations as a way to promote more wealth for all. It says it is against the Euro but not against the EU. As a study for the Otto Brenner Stiftung points out, the “competition populism” of the AfD paradoxically profits from the good economic performance of Germany, which allows the party to articulate “chauvinistic senses of superiority” under the heading of “competitiveness,” especially towards the southern European states.

The AfD did not evolve out of the blue. Quite the contrary, the party is rather like the dark side of Merkel´s style of governing and campaigning, which is generally considered to be highly successful. Merkel is not trying to shape the public debate and offensively convince voters of measures she thinks are necessary. Instead, Merkel usually plays hide and seek, cautiously observing the political landscape and revealing her intentions at the latest possible point in time. This is especially true when it comes to European politics: Merkel has been working hard to give the impression of being a tough negotiator in Brussels protecting the purse of the German people – while at the same time making major concessions.

This strategy of camouflage was the breeding ground for the AfD. On the one hand, Merkel nurtured the arguments of the AfD – i.e. that it was counterproductive to support the crisis countries financially. On the other hand, Merkel ensured that a public debate about different strategies towards the crisis and Germany´s role never took place, thus opening a void for the AfD.

There is no doubt that the conservatives are insecure about how to deal with the new competitor, not least before the upcoming three Länder-elections in Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg. An inner-party discussion on the future strategy of the CDU/CSU with regard to the AfD has already started.

From the perspective of the SPD, although the result can be sold as a victory, it becomes relative when you compare the election numbers to the German federal elections in September 2013, when the SPD received 25.7%. An increase of 1.6 percentage points is not much considering the impressive start of the SPD in the grand coalition, but also given the fact that Martin Schulz is German and widely seen as a credible politician, who gave an excellent performance on the campaign trail. The weakness of the SPD in the South and in the East remains, as well as a lack of chemistry with younger voters.

Apparently, the major projects the SPD has set up in the last month – first and foremost an expensive pension reform allowing earlier retirement – did not pay out with the voters. In a background discussion shortly before May 25th, a highly ranked social democratic government official said this comes as no surprise. At this stage, he said, the SPD is implementing policies for which it received only 25.7% of the votes. According to him, the plan is to provide policies reaching out to the centre later on in the legislative cycle.

The target-group-oriented domestic policies of the governing SPD are one factor to explain why the 30%-barrier is still so far out of reach. Also, the SPD did not manage to clearly convey that it really wants to “think Europe anew,” as it stated on election posters. It might be too much to ask to clearly distance yourself from your opponent when you form a coalition at federal level, but it is a problem for the SPD when 68% of Germans say that in European politics, the parties are indistinguishable. In order not to be vulnerable, crucial issues such as the future of the Eurozone or the border-migration problem in the South have been left out by the SPD. Notwithstanding the enthusiasm of Martin Schulz, this election campaign seemed more like a matter of duty than conviction, a temporary simulation of pro-European sentiment. It is no coincidence that in the internal planning scenarios of the SPD government ministries, European politics and the future of the European institutional setting play a subordinate role. The SPD wants to score on national issues, as many social democrats consider Europe to be Merkel´s home soil, where the SPD can only lose.

The rise of the AfD and the lack of politicisation leave the European elections in Germany with a stale aftertaste. However, the good news is that at the same time, these elections have shown that attempting to fight populists through imitation does not work. The Bavarian CSU tried to take the bread out of the AfD’s mouth by polemicising against “immigration into the social security system.” Merkel took the same line shortly before the elections when she claimed the EU was no “social union.” The CSU ended up with 40.5% of the votes – their worst ever result in a European election.

Instead of retreating from the populists, the more promising approach is to present a clear cut alternative and fight your corner with conviction. Just take the social democratic foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at a campaign event in Berlin: loud protesters had accused him of warmongering with regard to the Ukraine-crisis. His answer was a furious, emotional speech, telling the audience that the world was not black and white; it was much more complicated. This was a diplomat on stage at Alexanderplatz, who demonstrated clear conviction without any tactical calculation. As of today, the video of his performance has almost 2.5 million hits on YouTube.

This article was published as contribution to the monthly insight bulletin State of the Left by our London-based partner thinktank policy network.