When all parties lead to Angela
Confusion reigns in Germany’s party politics. That may not affect who wins next year’s election
Less than a year before Germany’s federal election, Chancellor Angela Merkel is doing well, at least at home. Her centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), are leading in the polls. Better still, the other parties are making news either for being in a shambles or, whenever for a moment they are not, for speculation that they might join a coalition in which Mrs Merkel would be senior partner and thus remain as chancellor.
Mrs Merkel’s biggest coup has been to remain personally unsullied by the otherwise disappointing performance of the ruling coalition of the CDU and CSU with the smaller Free Democratic Party (FDP). The world might assume that German politics is given over to the country’s responsibility to save the euro. Instead, the CSU and FDP have spent most of their political energy on tactical projects that are either daft (for the CSU) or petty (the FDP).
This month, for example, the CSU tried to pander to Bavaria’s family-values voters by pushing through a new subsidy to parents who care for toddlers at home rather than sending them to a creche. Conveniently, the payments will begin next August, just before both the Bavarian and the federal elections. Most parties, notably the FDP, see this policy as an expensive step backwards for a modern society that could leave children of poor families deprived of education. But the FDP accepted it in return for getting rid of a 10 ($12.6) fee that publicly insured patients have to pay once a quarter when they see their doctor.
That the FDP is reduced to horse-trading over such minutiae says a lot about the collapse of this once-grand liberal party. The polls suggest it may get less than 5% of votes in the election, and would thus be ejected from the Bundestag. If an election in Lower Saxony in January confirms such a poor showing, the FDP’s leader, Philipp Rosler (who is also economics minister), will surely have to go. There are even rumours of a plot to oust him sooner.
With the coalition so preoccupied, the main opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) might have been expected to attack more effectively. That was the idea behind picking Peer Steinbruck, a famously sharp-tongued former finance minister, as the party’s candidate for chancellor. Mr Steinbruck has, however, become embroiled in a sustained debate about the speaking fees he has been earning on the side (1.25m since 2009, the highest of any Bundestag member). Never loved by his party’s blue-collar and trade-union base, Mr Steinbruck, the millionaire, may have turned off many of his erstwhile comrades completely.
It is telling that the SPD chairman, Sigmar Gabriel, is continually having to parry questions about an election outcome in which the SPD would play second fiddle to Mrs Merkel in another “grand coalition”, like the one Germany had from 2005-09. Absolutely not, insist both Mr Gabriel and Mr Steinbruck, claiming that they overlap ideologically only with the Greens, the other centre-left party. (The Left Party is still considered too toxic to touch, for it descends largely from the old East German Communist Party, and it is anyway also struggling to stay in parliament.)
The SPD is terrified whenever the Greens generate optimism for the wrong reason: their suitability as an alternative coalition partner for Mrs Merkel. The Greens have been on a roll since capturing the mayorship of Stuttgart, capital of the rich south-western state of Baden-Wurttemberg, which is also the first and so far only state to be governed by a Green premier. Their success is credited to the dominance within the party’s southern branch of the “realo” wing: pragmatists who can appeal to ecologically minded but conservative urban voters. Such “bourgeois” Greens could get along fine with the CDU and CSU in Berlin, goes the thinking.
As if to reinforce this impression, the Greens have just elected Katrin Goring-Eckardt, a leader in the Lutheran church who is from the east and is by Green standards a conservative, as their co-candidate for chancellor. (The other candidate, Jurgen , was almost preordained, for the Greens always pair a woman and a man.) Ms Goring-Eckardt’s selection was a rebuff to Claudia Roth, a flamboyant leftist. The choice immediately renewed speculation about an olive branch to the CDU.
The relative decline of the traditional main parties, the CDU and SPD, in favour of smaller and younger ones, explains much of this party manoeuvring. Some of these may just be fads. The Pirates have done well in four state elections but now seem to be self-destructing, unable to form basic policy and being generally tedious. Yet, as German society becomes more individualistic, says Oskar Niedermayer, a professor at Berlin’s Free University, traditional party structures based on interest groups (Catholics, say, or trade unionists) lose appeal, leaving allegiances in flux.
At the same time and despite the campaign rhetoric, the differences between the main parties have, he thinks, got smaller, making any radical change of direction unlikely. That is especially true next year, since it seems increasingly likely that Mrs Merkel, with her safe pair of hands, will continue as chancellor. Only her coalition partner remains to be chosen.