Germany’s 2009 Bundestag Election: a Political Realignment in Progress?

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Puerto Rico 

Voters in Germany gave a substantial plurality to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s right-of-center Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian counterpart, the Christian Social Union (CSU), in a general election held last Sunday to choose members of the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s bicameral legislature. Moreover, Chancellor Merkel – who has ruled for the past four years in a grand coalition with its main adversary, the center-left Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), following an inconclusive federal election in 2005 – will be able to form a government with its preferred coalition partner, the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), which scored its best election result ever.

The upcoming government will also have a majority in the Bundesrat – the indirectly-elected federal upper chamber – following elections in the Länder (federal states) of Schleswig-Holstein and Brandenburg, which were held concurrently with the Bundestag poll.

Meanwhile, the Social Democrats sustained heavy losses and polled their worst result since the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949. However, both the Left Party (an amalgam of leftist SPD dissidents and ex-Communists from the former East Germany) and the environmentalist Alliance ’90/The Greens made inroads at the expense of SPD; both parties scored nationwide vote percentages in the double digits for the first time ever.

Members of the Bundestag are elected by a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system, under which half the chamber’s seats are filled in single-member constituencies by plurality or first-past-the-post voting, while the remaining half come from closed party lists; voters cast a first vote for a constituency candidate, and a second vote for a party list. All Bundestag seats (constituency and party list alike) are distributed by proportional representation among parties that win at least five percent of the nationwide second (that is, list) vote, or secure no fewer than three direct (constituency) mandates. Bundestag seats are subsequently apportioned among state-level lists on a party-by-party basis, and constituency mandates won by a party are subtracted from its corresponding seat total, with the remaining seats coming from the party’s list.

However, if a party obtains direct mandates in excess of its assigned seat total in any given state, it is allowed to keep the additional seats – known as overhang mandates – and the Bundestag is expanded accordingly. In Sunday’s election, CDU and CSU won a total of 24 overhang mandates – which did not change the election outcome (contrary to what had been feared in the days preceding the vote), but nonetheless will increase the upcoming CDU/CSU-FDP coalition government’s Bundestag majority from eighteen to forty-two.

Elections to the German Bundestag has a detailed description of Germany’s electoral system, as well as Bundestag election results since 1949, including preliminary 2009 figures.

While the outcome of last Sunday’s vote was widely anticipated by opinion polls, it nonetheless constitutes a major departure from previous elections. Although the Union parties were the clear election winners, both CDU and CSU continued to lose ground and scored their lowest shares of the vote since 1949. As a result of their decline and the Social Democrats’ sharp drop, Germany’s two major groups now command only 56.8% of the party list vote – the lowest figure ever in the history of the Federal Republic, down from 69.4% in 2005 and 77% in 2002. Meanwhile, the gap between the Social Democrats and the liberal FDP is now down to the single digits for the first time ever; in fact, in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg, the liberals came within half a percentage point of displacing SPD as the second largest party.

As such, the results of the 2009 Bundestag election suggest that a realignment of political forces may be underway in Germany. While CDU/CSU will be able to form a coalition government with the Free Democrats for the first time since 1998, the postwar German party system of two large mass parties (Volksparteien in German, literally people’s parties) and a smaller centrist party holding the balance of power – is definitively dead. Instead, Germany appears to be shifting towards a more fragmented, Scandinavian-type party system.

In fact, changes in Germany’s traditional party system were already underway as early as 1983, when the Greens secured Bundestag representation, mainly by siphoning votes from the Social Democrats. However, the Greens’ disastrous 1990 Bundestag election result, brought about by the party’s opposition to reunification, as well as its short-sighted refusal to merge with the East German Greens and their allies ahead of the election; and the continuing decline of the post-Communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), which steadily lost ground after a relatively strong start in East Germany’s 1990 parliamentary election, appeared to indicate that by the next federal election only CDU/CSU, SPD and FDP would remain as viable political players.

Alas, it was not to be, largely because reunification proved to be far costlier and messier than previously anticipated. Following their 1990 election fiasco, the Greens regrouped and went on to stage a successful Bundestag comeback in 1994, while PDS capitalized on East German discontent with reunification, and managed to bypass the five percent threshold by capturing four constituency seats in East Berlin. Meanwhile, the CDU/CSU-FDP coalition government of then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl barely hung on to office, mainly because overhang seats expanded the ruling alliance’s ultra-narrow two-seat majority to ten seats – a pattern that has since become a recurring feature of Bundestag elections.

At any rate, by 1998 Kohl’s government had overextended its welcome after sixteen years in office, and German voters were ready for change in the form of SPD leader Gerhard Schröder, who led the party to back-to-back victories in 1998 and 2002, both times in coalition with the Greens, and both times with overhang mandates padding otherwise thin Bundestag majorities. Moreover, Schröder only managed to survive in 2002 by virtue of his government’s prompt response to the catastrophic floods that devastated eastern Germany shortly before the election: while the Social Democrats lost ground in western Germany, they scored gains in the east at the expense of PDS, which failed to clear either electoral threshold and lost all but two of its Bundestag seats.

Nevertheless, Chancellor Schröder’s final term in office from 2002 to 2005 was characterized by the unpopular labor and welfare reforms his government was forced to enact in order to deal with a severe economic recession. These reforms, which scaled back Germany’s generous welfare state, infuriated many Social Democratic left-wing traditionalists, who felt the party had betrayed its socialist roots. Eventually, a number of SPD left-wing dissidents abandoned the party; these subsequently went on to join forces with a reinvigorated PDS to establish the Left Party.

In due course, Chancellor Schröder triggered an early Bundestag election by deliberately losing a parliamentary confidence vote. However, while the Social Democrats put up an unexpectedly strong performance in the election – held one year ahead of schedule in September 2005 – they nonetheless came up a percentage point behind CDU/CSU. At the same time, neither the Union parties nor the Social Democrats could form a majority coalition government with their respective partners of choice, namely FDP and the Greens, and eventually it became clear that the only viable government was a grand coalition of the two major groups. After weeks of negotiations, both sides agreed to a coalition cabinet presided by CDU leader Angela Merkel – Germany’s first-ever female head of government – while SPD retained a majority of the ministries.

At the outset, Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU-SPD grand coalition cabinet was widely expected to be a short-lived affair; as it was, Merkel proved to be a popular figure, and her government ran the length of its four-year mandate. Nonetheless, the grand coalition government was very much an alliance of necessity for both CDU/CSU and SPD, and neither group had any desire to continue it beyond 2009; consequently, Chancellor Merkel made it clear that she still regarded the liberal Free Democrats as her party’s preferred coalition partner. Meanwhile, the Social Democrats hoped to form a “traffic light” coalition with the Free Democrats and the Greens. However, the liberals made it clear they were not really interested in any such arrangements, even though there was relatively little difference between the Social Democrats and the Union parties during the election campaign.

In fact, that perception may have weighted heavily against SPD: many of the party’s traditional voters apparently concluded it had strayed too far from its ideological roots, and shifted their allegiances to the Left Party or the Greens (or stayed at home), which led to the party’s disastrous result in Sunday’s vote. Moreover, the collapse of the Social Democrats has led to the emergence of two distinct party systems: one in the former West Germany, and a very different one in East Germany.

To be certain, differences in the voting patterns of Germany’s western and eastern zones have been a distinctive trait of German electoral politics since reunification in 1990: specifically, over the course of the last two decades PDS and its 2005 successor, the Left Party have retained significant popular support in the erstwhile German Democratic Republic, much to the dismay of politicians in the western part of the country. Nonetheless, until now CDU and SPD remained the two largest parties in the so-called “new Länder,” with PDS and subsequently the Left Party in an increasingly stronger third place, but third place all the same.

At the same time, PDS fared poorly in the in the “old Länder” of western Germany, where it was widely reviled as the successor of East Germany’s defunct Communist Party; even with the backing of SPD dissidents headed by former Social Democratic leader Oskar Lafontaine, the Left Party had a relatively limited impact outside Lafontaine’s home state of Saarland: in the 2005 Bundestag election, the new party polled a quarter of the vote in the east, but less than five percent in the west.

However, while the Union parties are now the dominant force in both German sides of the now-defunct Iron Curtain, after Sunday’s election the Left Party has become the second largest in eastern Germany, closely behind CDU; the Social Democrats have fallen to a distant third place. On the other hand, SPD still remains the second largest party in western Germany, where the Left Party has made significant inroads but remains twenty points weaker than in the east, well behind both FDP and the Greens (which like CDU and SPD fared better in the western part of the country). Meanwhile, in the capital city of Berlin, Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, the Left Party and the Greens are now in a very competitive four-way race – none of the parties won as much as a quarter of the list vote – with FDP not very far behind.

Incidentally, the established smaller parties were not the only beneficiaries of the voters’ shift away from the major groups: the new Pirate Party, which advocates digital and privacy rights – most notably the legalization of file sharing – polled two percent of the list vote and qualified for state funding; the Pirates, which are now the largest party outside the Bundestag, have set their sights on next year’s election in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state.

Nonetheless, a substantial number of voters chose to pass up the event altogether, and turnout dropped to the lowest figure ever for a Bundestag election: just 70.8% of the electorate went to the polls, sharply down from 77.7% four years ago.

While CDU/CSU and FDP have been coalition partners in the past – most recently from 1982 to 1998 – the Free Democrats were previously a much smaller party than CDU, usually with fewer seats in the Bundestag than CSU alone. By contrast, FDP will now have half as many seats as CDU, and over twice as many as CSU, which could introduce a different dynamic from past coalition governments of the three parties. Thus, it’s not inconceivable that the liberals may want to throw their weight around on issues such as tax cuts, which were a central plank of the party’s successful 2009 election campaign. That said, tax cuts do not appear to be a viable option for at least a couple of years, since Germany is just emerging from the severe recession triggered by last year’s global economic crisis, and it remains to be seen how much influence will the liberals ultimately wield in Chancellor Merkel’s new government.

Just as important, the future of the much weakened SPD – which returns to the opposition after eleven years in office – remains highly uncertain. The Social Democrats may well lurch to the left in an attempt to neutralize the Left Party and recover its lost support on that flank, but it’s far from clear how such a move could be accomplished without losing its more moderate voters – which the party desperately needs as well in order to remain competitive – or for that matter without breaking apart. From that perspective, the changes already underway in Germany’s party system may turn out to be a halfway house to yet another political realignment further down the road.


Originally published at Global Economy Matters and reproduced here with the author’s permission.