Politics of Germany: An Overview

Angela Merkel seeks to unite her country in a time of tension, both cultural and political.


Germany is a country with an evolving political and cultural dynamic since the fall of the Berlin wall and the reuniting of the country in 1990.  Because of reunification occurring only 27 years ago, the country still has political scars of Soviet communism, specifics of which will be discussed later in this article.  It is one of the few economically stable countries in Europe in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and heavily embedded in the European Union, requiring Germany to often bear the brunt of assisting other struggling countries in the EU.  This has led to some increased nationalist tendencies in recent years.

The political environment of the country is still shrouded in the fear of Nazi and Communist beliefs, due to both extreme ideologies’ roles in the history of 20th century Germany.  This fear drives German politics often more towards the center than other countries, so much so that extreme right-wing or left-wing political parties can be banned.  One such party is the minor National Democratic Party (NPD) which is often considered a neo-Nazi party and has walked the fine line between being banned and tolerated.  This tension has increased in recent years due to the influx of immigrants and refugees from both southern Europe after the 2008 financial crisis, that struck countries like Italy and Greece much harder than Germany, and from the Middle East during the ongoing Syrian Civil War.  This trend has led to a rise in right-wing-populism and nationalism in the country.  Though Germany has experienced this much less than countries like Poland, Hungary, and the Netherlands, right-wing-populists took over the previously largely soft-euroskeptic and academic led Alternative for Germany (also known as Alternative für Deutschland: AfD) and turned it into a rising force against immigration.  This sentiment spiked and peaked between 2014 and 2016 with the rise of the Pegida movement (“Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West”) which led protests across the country against the influx of mainly Muslim refugees.  Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has served as German Chancellor and head of the Christian Democratic Union, CDU, for 12 years, had encouraged open immigration policies when it came to refugees and many of the more right-wing supporters of the CDU joined the AfD in protest of her policies.  Every major party has refused to form a coalition with the AfD at any level of government due to the AfD’s perceived extremism, meaning the more support they have the harder it is for Angela Merkel to form a coalition government.  While the refugee crisis is not over, the situation has calmed down some and AfD’s support has faded slightly because of this.  Regardless, it is a key topic in German politics and is one of the top issues in the 2017 election and beyond.

Source: Wikipedia

On the other extreme, more far-left sentiments have not resulted in a new party, but the lingering remnants of Soviet control reside in the support for Die Linke (“The Left”), the second successor party to the Socialist Unity Party that led East Germany.  While the states that were under West German control are often more supportive of the center-right and more moderate parties, the former East German states have a much higher support for Die Linke as well as the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).  This divide between East and West has faded more in time, but Die Linke consistently struggles in the West and succeeds in the East.  Like with the AfD on the right, most of the time no one is willing to form a coalition with Die Linke, but the SPD has become more willing to work with them recently at the state level in Brandenburg.  Tensions still exist at the national level though, so the stronger Die Linke is the harder it is for the center-left to lead in coalitions.

The German government in split into three branches with a bicameral legislature, the Chancellor, appointed by the Bundestag (the lower house), and the Federal Constitutional Court, appointed by the Bundestag and the Bundesrat (the upper house).  The Bundesrat acts somewhat similarly to the original setup of the United States Senate with slight differences.  The members of the Bundesrat are selected by the state governments, and the number is meant to be more even but still weighted by population.  Each state gets somewhere between 3 and 6 members depending on the population of the state.  These members then must vote as one block or they are forced to abstain.  These members, unlike the US Senate, are not selected every certain number of years, they are instead sent by the state following state elections (which are held in different years and months than the German federal election).  This can cause a changing Bundesrat while the Bundestag remains the same.  For example, there were three state elections earlier in 2017 completely apart from the upcoming federal election.  In general the Bundesrat holds much less power than the Bundestag, though it is still an integral part of passing legislation.  Currently, the Bundesrat is friendly to the government due to the “Grand Coalition” between the center-right CDU and center-left SPD which also lead the coalition of almost every state.  The Bundestag’s selection process is more complicated and will be explained more in the next paragraph.  It’s function is the main legislative body of the German government, and it also has the role of selecting the Chancellor via secret ballot following a new election.  This is done either by a party having an absolute majority, which is very unlikely, or a coalition of parties. The Bundestag also has the responsibility of attempting to pass a “vote of confidence” if support for the current government is shaky.  This effectively works the same as a UK “vote of no confidence,” but instead there must be an actively majority supporting the Chancellor (instead of actively opposing the Prime Minister) in order to survive the vote.  If such a vote fails, then the Bundestag dissolves and a new election is held, though this does not occur often.

Angela Merkel (CDU) has served as Chancellor for 12 years. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Bundestag’s selection process is more complicated than most countries due to the combined electoral systems.  Technically there are 598 seats in the Bundestag, 299 of which are selected by first-past-the-post constituencies (like the US House of Representatives) and the other half which are selected by a party-list vote with a 5% cutoff (these seats are then distributed by states with larger states receiving more seats).  The constituency vote is traditionally called the “first vote” and the party-list the “second vote.”  The first vote seats are almost always won by the CDU (or the CSU, the CDU’s Bavarian Sister Party) or SPD due to them being the larger and more popular parties.  The second vote then brings in some of the smaller parties, ranging between a total of 3 to 7 parties, though there technically is not a maximum.  The technicality on the number of seats comes in as the German system guarantees a proportional result, meaning though the CDU gets more first vote seats than they earned proportionally, they only get the proportional result.  This gets complicated since everyone who won a constituency or list seat is guaranteed their seat.  The result is “overhang” seats which are added on to the smaller parties to ensure they get their proportional share, literally expanding the size of the body.  Currently, there are 630 representatives in the Bundestag instead of 598 because of this.  Following the 2017 election they are expecting there to be potentially greater than 700 representatives due to more small parties making it past the 5% cutoff.  This has required the German government to actually conduct expansion construction on the Reichstag Building to make room for the expected members.  The result of all of this is a somewhat confusing and complicated system.  It would be simpler to have a parallel style system, which is the same without the overhang seats, but Germany’s mixed-member-proportional system provides the proportional outcome they want along with constituency representatives as well.

The two elections we can take a look at for the overview of German politics are the 2013 Federal Election and the 2014 European Parliament Elections.  First, the 2013 Federal Election.  Angela Merkel’s CDU and their Bavarian sister party (the CSU) came close to being the only party since the end of World War 2 to have an absolute majority in the Bundestag with a combined 41.5% of the vote and 311 out of 631 seats (Note: The CDU and CSU are sister parties.  The CSU only runs in Bavaria and the CDU does not run there.  Together they form “The Union” and act as one party though they do have slight ideological differences).  The CDU and CSU gained 61 and 11 seats respectively, but it wasn’t enough.  Their favorite coalition partner, the center to center-right libertarian Free Democratic Party (FDP), failed to reach the 5% hurdle since its foundation in 1948, losing all 93 of their seats and forcing Merkel to form a “Grand Coalition” with the SPD as no other center-right parties were available to work with.  The SPD itself received 25.7% of the vote and 193 seats, gaining 47, but would not form a center-left to left-wing coalition with the progressive Alliance 90/The Greens (their favored coalition partner) and Die Linke due to their continued animosity towards working with Die Linke.  The Greens received 8.4% of the party list vote and 63 seats while Die Linke received 8.6% of the party list vote and 64 seats.  The Bundestag was left with these 5 parties as both the FDP and AfD fell short of the 5% hurdle with 4.8% and 4.7% of the vote respectively.  The election was seen as a move by Merkel towards the center from the center-right, damaging their junior-coalition partner, the FDP, in the process (as they were seen as abandoning principles to stay in power with the CDU) and alienating the right-wing of her own party.  It was the CDU’s best result since 1994 but even this success couldn’t bring Merkel her desired majority.

The CDU/CSU (Black/Blue) and SPD win the most constituency seats every election and did again in 2013. The local list votes tend to mirror the constituency votes on who earns a plurality  (Source: Wikipedia)

The 2014 European Elections had a unique factor of the Constitutional Court abolishing the 5% hurdle for European Elections, which are conducted purely using a proportional party-list, meaning every major and even most minor parties received at least one of the 96 German seats in the European Parliament.  Germany actually lost 3 seats in total due to treaties changing the amount of European Parliament seats as well.  The CDU received the most seats with 29 and 30% of the vote, down 0.7% and 5 seats, while the CSU earned 5.3% of the vote and 5 seats, down 1.9% and 3 seats.  The SPD earned 27 seats and 27.3% of the vote, gaining 6.5% and 4 seats.  The CDU’s lost seats were largely due to the removal of the 5% hurdle as 8 parties finished below the 5% hurdle and received at least one seat.  The Greens earned 10.7% of the vote and 11 seats, down 3 seats and 1.4% of the vote and Die Linke earned 7.4% of the vote and 7 seats, staying constant vote wise but losing a seat.  AfD saw itself rising into prominence for the first time earning 7% of the vote and 7 seats while the FDP continued to slide, receiving 3.4% of the vote and 3 seats, down 7.6% and 9 seats.

The story following these two elections featured a few elements.  One of these elements was the rising right-wing-populist tide in the AfD and whether they would be a real force in the future state and federal elections.  They were, finishing in the top 3 in many state elections and even finishing in 2nd in Saxony-Anhalt’s state election in 2016 with 24.2% of the vote.  Since then they have faded slightly but are still a force and a thorn in Merkel’s side.  Another element was whether Merkel would restore her party’s center-right roots or continue the shift to the center.  It became evident that the latter was the plan with her more open immigration plans, the legalization of gay marriage, and giving into many SPD demands on economic policies.  This has continued to pull many members away into the AfD and has caused tension with the more conservative CSU, as the CDU’s platform for 2017 remains more moderate than their Bavarian colleagues.  Another element has been the FDP’s near death experience and rise from the ashes.  We will discuss this more in the 2017 preview and the article on the party, but the FDP was perceived to no longer be relevant following their 2014 failure and struggles in state elections.  That was until young Nordrhein-Westfalen FDP head Christian Lindner took over the national party, bringing it back to its principles as well as modernizing it to appeal to young voters.  Recent state level successes and polling have shown that the FDP is alive again, and it will be interesting to see how this recovery plays out.

The Grand Coalition has been awkward since 2013, but Merkel’s moderation of the CDU has kept it alive while emboldening the right-wing.  The state of German politics is more stable than much of Europe but much is in flux.  The 2017 election may answer a lot of questions as well as creating new ones, and we will explore these and give a preview of the 2017 German election in our next article.

Sources: Five Thirty Eight’s article, various articles or pages over the past few years from: Deutsche Welle, Wikipedia, Die Spiegel, BILD, Die Welt

Author: Brendan Noble

I am a political consultant, data-analyst, Hillsdale College economics alumnus, and conservative-libertarian. Twitter: @Brendan_Noble

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