Inside the German election 2017

When is the German election?

The German federal election is on September 24, 2017. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany since 2005, is standing again for what would be a record-breaking fourth term, leading the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU).

It's a big deal both because of what it means for the future of the EU after Brexit, and for stability in a less certain, post-Trump global order. 


What are the main parties?

Merkel’s centre-right CDU (with its more conservative Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union or CSU) makes up the largest party in the Bundestag, the German parliament. The CDU/CSU have governed in an uneasy coalition with the Social Democratic Party since the last election, in 2013.

Merkel's party is on track for another victory, consistently leading in the polls with 38-40 percent of the vote in the months leading up to the election.

The centre-left Social Democratic Party looked set to challenge Merkel in January, when former EU President Martin Schulz took over leadership. But after a solid trouncing by the CDU in three state elections since then, Schulz’s prospects are looking thinner.

The pro-EU Social Democrats are polling at just 25 percent of the national vote.

The Left, led by Dietmar Bartsch and Sarah Wagenknecht, is loosely linked to the former East German communist party. They push for more state involvement in the economy and are polling at 10 percent.

The Greens, like their namesake in Australia, are a socially progressive, environment-minded party popular with educated urban classes. They are currently polling around eight percent, and could become kingmakers after the election.

The Free Democratic Party (FDP) led by Christian Lindner is a free-market, economically liberal, pro-tax-cut party currently polling around eight percent. They were Merkel’s coalition partner in her second term, but in the 2013 elections failed to clear the five percent of the vote hurdle required to get into the Bundestag so have no seats at present.

Alternative for Germany (AfD) is a far-right, Euroskeptic, anti-immigration party that emerged in 2013 and leapt to the national stage after Merkel’s controversial decision to admit 1 million refugees in 2015. As yet they don’t hold any seats in the Bundestag, but they are polling at eight percent, so they might soon.

Who is going to win?

While predicting elections has become a fraught business since Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, German polls consistently point to Merkel being returned to power.

“Merkel or Merkel, is that Germany’s only choice?” asked the nation’s main Sunday talk show, a month from election day.

But the CDU will have to form a coalition with a smaller party again to rule, and that is where things could get interesting. This looks like minority government, or what Australians call a hung parliament, but in Germany coalition government is routine.

Based on the polls, another so-called Grand Coalition between CDU and the SDP could be on the cards again, but with its obvious ideological conflicts it has been called a “loveless marriage”.

Another possible coalition would be the CDU with the FDP as junior party, as in Merkel’s second term, uniting two centre-right parties. This would be a more comfortable arrangement for Merkel.

The so-called Jamaica coalition (because of the parties’ colours of black, yellow and green) would see the CDU team up with both the pro-business FDP and the Greens, an odd partnership that’s now politically feasible since Merkel permitted a free vote to legalise same sex marriage and signalled a policy shift towards the manufacture of electric cars, which had been totemic issues for the Greens.

Theoretically, Merkel’s leadership could be under threat if Schulz’s Social Democrats could cobble together a coalition with the Left and the Greens.

What about the far-right party?

All the other major parties have said they would not do a deal with the explicitly anti-Islam and climate denialist Alternative for Germany party.

Its rise has been hobbled by infighting and a steep slump in the polls since 2016. Still, AFD has representation in 13 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments and on current polling will get seats in the Bundestag.

The rise of a far-right party in Germany is an extraordinary development in a country that is sensitive to its history of World War II racist atrocities. Individual members have been accused of holding neo-Nazi views.

“A far right party entering the Bundestag is quite catastrophic, quite apart from their policies which are seen quite rightly by many as beyond the pale,” said German politics and history expert, Associate Professor Matt Fitzpatrick from Flinders University.

“In some ways that’s seen by many as a defeat in and of itself for German democracy.”

Wasn't Merkel going to lose?

At the beginning of 2017 when her opponent Martin Schulz took over leadership of the Social Democrats, his approval ratings soared while Merkel’s plummeted. It looked like the Social Democrats were polling strongly enough to form government.

Merkel’s decision to open Germany to a million refugees in 2015 led to a fierce backlash.

Now Merkel’s personal approval rating is at 59 percent, down from 69 percent at the height of her popularity.

But, as Professor Fitzpatrick points out, 59 percent is a personal approval rating Australian politicians would dream of. 

So what has changed?

Well - a lot. The German economy is humming, unemployment is low. Conservative newspaper 'Die Welt' wrote in an August editorial that “things are going too well for Germans to develop any deep dissatisfaction with the government”.

Crucially, the deal Merkel brokered with Turkey to continue aid in return for Turkey monitoring its borders more closely stopped the influx of refugees.

The mass migration that we saw in the summer before this one is not what’s going on at present,” said Professor Fitzpatrick. “So there’s not that sense of masses of people arriving at German train stations.”

And her opponent Schulz’s honeymoon with the German public didn’t last.

Merkel’s CDU triumphed in three state elections in the first half of this year, including in North Rhine-Westphalia which has a fifth of Germany’s population and has long been a SDP stronghold.  

And of course the US elected President Trump, whose erratic style has reminded many Germans how good it is to have a steady hand on the tiller.

Dr Fitzpatrick said, “In the current era of Trump dominated US politics there's a real sense that Germany is an alternative pole for global politics, particularly with regard to things such as standing across from Putin in Russia.

"If Trump is seen as an unreliable party in Washington then stability and even strength in Berlin is seen as a great plus. Merkel is seen as having a great deal of experience.”