Western Europe

Happy German Election Day: What to Expect as the EU’s Dominant Power Goes to the Polls

By Shannon Togawa Mercer
Sunday, September 24, 2017, 7:00 AM

German voters go to the polls Sunday in an election well worth close American attention. As with the French election in the spring and the British snap election in June, the German federal electorate is wrestling with the pull of a right-wing party in the face of mass migration and sweeping security threats. While not slated to win a dominant position in the Bundestag, the Alternative für Deutschland party, founded in 2013, is likely to be the first far-right, nationalist party in more than 50 years to enter Germany’s parliament. Other parties, while less extreme, have shifted their orientations away from the Anglo-American West and toward Russia. With the European Union facing its most profound existential crisis, Germany stands as the major economically prosperous bulwark of the European experiment—which means that a significant shift in German government could result in a pivot for the EU.

While European angst may seem worlds away from U.S. domestic turmoil, some aspects of this election are significant for American foreign policy and national security thinking. First, the parties poised to enter the Bundestag hold very different views concerning Germany’s relationship with Russia and, as a result, about Europe’s relationship with Russia. Moreover, the parties have different perspectives on the importance of military cooperation, both within the EU and within the bounds of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Ultimately, the health of the EU-U.S. relationship will be determined by the willingness with which the German government spends money and political capital keeping Europe aligned with American interests. That question is very much at play in voter choices.

The 19th Bundestag, or parliament, will be composed of at least 598 seats. Every four years, voters submit two votes—one for a local representative and one for a party. The local representative race is a first-past-the-post vote, and 299 of the Bundestag’s seats are reserved for the winners at this stage. The remaining 299 seats are filled by every party that receives more than 5 percent of the ballots in the second vote, or at least three seats in the first vote. Seats are allocated proportionally to votes received, but if a party wins so many local representative seats that the Bundestag becomes imbalanced, more seats are added to preserve proportionality. There are 631 representatives in the 18th Bundestag for exactly that reason. There are 4,828 candidates in this election, 29 percent of whom are women. After the vote, the new Bundestag gathers and elects the chancellor (whom the president nominates) by a majority of all Bundestag members. 

The main parties are the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the party of the current chancellor, Angela Merkel, which is aligned with the Christian Social Union (CSU); the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD); the left-wing environmental Green Party; the leftist Die Linke (formerly the Communist Party); the free-market Free Democratic Party (FDP); and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The Christian Democrats, a center-right amalgam of the CDU and the CSU, are a favorite in polls.

Most predictions show Merkel’s party (CDU/CSU) garnering the most votes. A Financial Times poll predicts the CDU/CSU earning about 36 percent of the vote, 14 points more than its expected second-place party, the SPD.

While that sounds substantial, a victory of this magnitude would not be enough to form a ruling government. The CDU/CSU is likely to have to form a coalition government. Germany’s current government is a coalition between the CDU/CSU and SPD parties.

There are hypotheses about the potential coalitions: the CDU/CSU might partner with the FDP, which was longtime chancellor Helmut Kohl’s governing coalition; it might, once again, partner with the SPD; there is also talk of a “Jamaica” coalition, or a government made of the Black (CDU/CSU), Yellow (FDP) and Green parties; a CDU/CSU and Green Party coalition is considered less likely. The CDU/CSU has ruled out a partnership with the far right-wing AfD or Die Linke. If the CDU/CSU performs worse than expected and the SPD is the largest party, it could look to partner with Die Linke and the Green Party, which is the coalition currently in charge of the city-state of Berlin. In the alternative, the SPD may look to form a “traffic light” coalition (yes, the Germans enjoy their political color metaphors) involving the Red (SPD), Yellow (FDP) and Green parties.

Why should Americans care about these elections? A few reasons:

First, Germany’s relationship with Russia, and therefore Europe’s relationship with Russia, stands in the balance. Merkel has clearly opposed Russia’s bellicose activities, particularly the annexation of Crimea (about which she said that accepting the annexation would be similar to accepting the division of Germany in the Cold War era). Should the CDU/CSU form a successful coalition government, Germany will remain the backbone of European opposition to Russia. Merkel was instrumental in the design and imposition of the most recent set of EU sanctions against Russia.

The SPD, however, would seek a closer relationship with Russia and potentially lift some active sanctions. The FDP has taken an even more charitable view of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, saying that it may accept the annexation as a “long-term provisional arrangement.” Die Linke, even further to the left, supports a security alliance with Russia. On the other end of the spectrum, the far-right, anti-immigration AfD believes that improved relations with Russia would help control immigration from Central Asia. The party’s co-founder and Brandenburg party leader, Alexander Gauland, explained: “we can only block the way for refugees from Asia and Afghanistan trying to get here by working with Russia. . . . [W]e need Russia as a Christian bulwark against an Islamic invasion.”

Should the CDU/CSU perform less favorably than predicted, an SPD alliance could shape a German outlook friendlier to Russian involvement in Europe. The Green Party is the only party likely to enter the Bundestag that joins the CDU/CSU in its intention to maintain sanctions against Russia until the Minsk peace agreement is implemented in Ukraine.

Stances on defense more generally also differ substantially among the parties. The CDU/CSU and the FDP have supported a plan for a joint EU military force and increased military spending to meet the NATO requirement of 2 percent of national output by 2024. Die Linke, the Green Party and the SPD, conversely, are against a military buildup of this nature. In fact, the SPD has accused the CDU/CSU of catering to Donald Trump’s desires, saying that “Merkel and the CDU/CSU make themselves small vis-a-vis Donald Trump when they answer his provocations around the two-percent target by saying, ‘Okay, fine, we’ll put in more money,’ as if we didn’t have any better ideas what to do.” While the CDU/CSU, FDP and SPD all see NATO as a part of the European common security and defense policy, Die Linke’s position is that Germany should leave NATO and join a common European security scheme that includes Russia. The AfD sees NATO as a defense alliance in which Europe should have more influence.

In June, the EU launched a large defense fund as part of the European Defense Action Plan to procure military equipment and to research and develop “joint defense capabilities.” The CDU/CSU has pushed for more EU defense integration, but the SPD and FDP are more aggressive about this proposal, seeking a single EU army. For its part, Die Linke rejects EU-wide militarization. EU diplomats are expressing even more enthusiasm for the European Defense Action Plan given that Brexit takes Britain out of the picture; Britain had opposed anything that poses competition for NATO.

In addition to the second-order consequences of Russian relations and defense schemes, Germany’s relationship with the United States is directly at issue in this election. Germany’s increasingly negative view of the United States is no secret. In her Munich speech in May, Merkel explained to the world (with apparent reference to the United States and the U.K.) that Germany does not see its alliances through rose-colored glasses: “the era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent.”  While Merkel’s statement did not sever ties with America by any means, her countrymen generally hold negative views about their transatlantic partner these days, according to Erik Brattberg, the director of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A study conducted by Pew Research Center this year indicates that only 11 percent of Germans have confidence in Trump; and only 35 percent of Germans have a favorable view of the United States, according to the same study. Separately, Brattberg cites a survey by Forsa that shows that 63 percent of Germans favor improved relations with Russia and only 40 percent of Germans want to strengthen German-American relations. Brattberg writes, “German foreign policy heavyweights like ex–foreign minister Joschka Fischer and former ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger have warned about the need to avoid falling into patterns of anti-Americanism and the importance of distinguishing between the U.S. leadership and the rest of the country, but these efforts do not seem to be bearing much fruit.”

While the CDU/CSU is primed to come out on top, which would  preserve some stability and predictability for arguably the most important government in Europe at the moment, each of the smaller parties in the Bundestag holds positions on Russia, EU collective defense, and NATO that would push in a different direction. So even if the polls are correct and the CDU/CSU continues to be the dominant party, it may emerge from this election dependant on parties poised to pull in a different direction.

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