Federal elections were held in Germany, on September 24, 2017, to elect the members of the 19th Bundestag. The Bundestag elects the next Chancellor with an absolute majority but normally needs support provided by coalitions. The election saw the Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU gained 33% of the vote, its lowest share since 1949, while the SPD achieved its worst result since the Second World War with just 20.5% of the vote. Alternative for Germany (AfD) – which was previously unrepresented in the Bundestag – became the third party in the Bundestag with 12.6% of the vote. Given the representation of the different parties, Merkel’s CDU/CSU needs the support of other parties to form a coalition government. A so-called “Jamaica coalition” between CDU/CSU, the Greens, and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) – because the colours of the parties involved match those on the Jamaican flag – is seen by experts as the most feasible option for coalition-building.
The task of building a coalition government, however, is not an easy one given the differing platforms and priorities of the parties involved. For Merkel, it is about forming a stable government and addressing the concerns of the voters who switched to the far-right AfD. “I’m not interested in the populist AfD politicians who ran a dreadful campaign based on racism and extreme nationalism. But I’m concerned about hundreds of thousands of people who have stopped voting for my party and are now voting for the AfD,” said David McAllister, a CDU member and Chair of the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee.
If no CDU/CSU-Greens-FDP coalition were to come to fruition, all eyes would be on the Social Democrats (SPD), who would then be asked to reconsider their firm position to stay in opposition. At any rate, the negotiations for coalition-building will take time. About the challenges of coalition-building, as well as what the results mean for Europe, Katarina Koleva talked to Achim Hurrelmann, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (EURUS) at Carleton University.
What came as a surprise of the elections and what was expected?
Achim Hurrelmann: It was expected that both of the large parties that previously formed the grand coalition– the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) – would lose in the vote, and they did. It was also predicted that Germany’s new far-right party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) would perform strongly and would make it into the Bundestag – and they did, with an even stronger showing than what was predicted in the last election forecast – about 13% of the vote. This gives them a very strong group in the German Bundestag.
What happens next?
Achim Hurrelmann: Germany has a tradition of forming coalition governments, so the next step will be for the largest party – Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU – to form a coalition. Their previous coalition partner, the Social Democrats, have declared, the moment the polls closed, that they would not be part of the government again, because they have seen that they suffer electorally from being a junior coalition partner with the CDU/CSU in the grand coalition. That leaves only one realistic alternative for a government coalition, which is the so-called “Jamaica coalition” – “Jamaica” because the colours of the parties involved match those on the Jamaican flag. The CDU/CSU is traditionally black, the Green Party is green, and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) is yellow. This is why it is called “Jamaica Coalition.” They will now have to see whether they can patch together a government, which will not be easy, because there are some significant differences between these parties, but there seems to be a willingness on all sides to make it work.
What are the biggest issues that the parties would have to overcome?
Achim Hurrelmann: There is an issue between the two smaller parties – FDP and the Green Party – in that the FDP is a traditional liberal free market party. As such, FDP advocates a policy of deregulation and has been strictly opposed to transferring funds to the European Union or to poorer countries in the European Union. The Green Party, on the other hand, wants more regulation of the economy in favour of ecological modernization, and has been advocating greater financial transfers in Europe. So, that’s a big issue that will need to be bridged. The second big issue is one between essentially more authoritarian law and order policies advocated particularly by the Bavarian Wing, the CSU, of Merkel’s own party, as opposed to both of the smaller parties, which are more libertarian in their outlook on these law and order issues.
When can the formation of a new government be expected?
Achim Hurrelmann: The coalition-building will probably be lengthy, because there are quite likely votes within the smaller parties to ratify in the eventual coalition agreement. I don’t think that it will be before December that the new federal government will be put together.
What does the election result mean for Europe?
Achim Hurrelmann: There are various dimensions to this, but the big picture is that there will be relatively little change in Germany’s policy towards Europe. What might be particularly interesting and important is that the French President, Emmanuel Macron, has advocated for the creation of a Eurozone finance minister, and a budget for the Eurozone to boost economic policy. Merkel is understood to be generally sympathetic to this idea, because she understands that she needs to help Macron to battle Eurosceptic positions within his own country. But with the FDP in government, it is very unlikely that the German government will shift away from its previous stance, which has been opposition to any substantial Eurozone budget or financial transfer. So, Germany’s position here will likely stay very similar to what the previous Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has argued for years, which is that there shouldn’t be any large financial transfers in the Eurozone.
On other European issues, one that comes to mind would be Brexit, where some members of the British government have hoped that the election might initiate a softening of the EU’s position in negotiating with the UK, but I do not see that happening. Brexit was not an issue in the election campaign at all, so the position that the EU has taken didn’t have anything to do with electoral politics in Germany.
Yes, the FDP is a liberal party – they are very friendly to the UK, but they are also a pro-EU party. The current position of the EU in the Brexit negotiations was taken not because they are against business links to the UK, but because the EU is trying to protect its own institutional interests. It is saying “if you want to leave, you must first settle the budgetary accounts,” so there is this so-called ‘divorce bill’ that needs to be paid. We first regulate the ‘divorce’ issues, we then talk about the future relationship. All of that is broadly common sense from an EU perspective, and has nothing really to do with being more or less business-friendly. So, yes, the FDP would like to see a good deal with the United Kingdom, but they will not oppose the EU positon, which is to insist on settling the withdrawal first, and then talk about the future relationship.
How do you see Germany’s position with regard to Poland and Hungary?
Achim Hurrelmann: What’s currently happening in the EU is that, at the level of the European Commission and the European Parliament, some investigations have been launched into potential restrictions of the rule of law in Poland and Hungary. This has been controversial. I don’t see, however, that Germany, with this new government, would be a major supporter of these initiatives to punish Poland and Hungary. The Bavarian CSU, in particular, has been trying quite deliberately to present itself as being close with the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The fact that now the far-right AfD did well, for them, indicates that they need to stress ths position even more. They need to be tougher on migration, tougher on refugees, tougher on law and order – all of the policies that Orbán, in particular, has also stood for.
Even though the Free Democrats and the Green Party are very critical of human rights abuses in Hungary and elsewhere, I think that the government, as a whole, will not be pulled into a leadership role of being critical of Hungary and Poland. And Merkel will rather try to be a bit of a mediator in this process.
What about Russia and Turkey?
Achim Hurrelmann: With respect to Russia, the sanctions are in place and the question is whether they will remain in place. An interview with the leader of the liberal FDP, Christian Lindner, made some waves before the election, in which he said the Russia annexation of Crimea should be “encapsulated” and kept out of any potential discussions with Russia, that it should be accepted as an interim status quo. I don’t think there’s very much of a developed policy behind this, but it does indicate the interest of German business, which traditionally is represented by the FDP, to move towards the normalization of relations with Russia. At the same time, Merkel has been a major advocate of sanctions and she has also insisted these decisions must be made jointly by the EU member-states in Brussels. Therefore, I don’t think Germany will unilaterally make any changes there.
As for Turkey, there has been very heated rhetoric between Germany and Turkey, in the last few months, with the accusations back and forth. Germany has, in the election campaign, even tried to convince other EU member-states to end the EU accession process for Turkey. One could say that now that the election is over, cooler heads might prevail. But I do not foresee any significant shift here. All of the parties that would potentially form a “Jamaica coalition” have indicated their opposition to Turkish membership in the EU, and have criticized human rights abuses. On the Turkish side as well, it seems to me, that President Erdrogan actually needs Germany to some extent as a scapegoat, as an external enemy. So, I would predict that the relationships will remain poor.
Overall, how would you assess the impact of a potential “Jamaica coalition” on the EU policy?
Achim Hurrelmann: Generally, I would say that there won’t be a major change in the German position. I would say that the election and the likely new coalition is bad news primarily for Emmanuel Macron. It’s rather good news for Hungary and Poland. It’s probably neutral for Theresa May, in terms of Brexit, as well as for Vladimir Putin and Erdogan, and their relationship with Europe. I also would like to emphasize that despite the fact that a populist, arguably racist party like the AfD has done well, this does not indicate that Germany will shift away from a generally supportive position towards European integration. We will likely see more pressure to limit refugee inflow and migration. But even the AfD is not advocating withdrawal from the EU. So, it does seem that the German society is generally supportive of the idea of European integration – I don’t see that under threat by this election.