A progressive perspective on the 2017 German federal election

The 2017 federal elections in Germany confirm and continue some key trends in contemporary politics.

A photo of the German Reichstag building where the Bundestag parliament is seated in Berlin.
Photo by Leon Seibert on Unsplash.

The German election results mark a major set back for progressives in that country, with serious implications for the European Union and for global economic governance.

Note that German voters elect a candidate in each constituency and also vote for a party in a mixed-member proportional representation electoral system. The final distribution of seats in the Parliament closely reflects the share of the national vote won by each party, with a 5% of the vote threshold to gain representation.

The dramatic entry of the right-wing, anti-immigrant, nationalist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) into the Parliament with 12.6% of the vote, up 7.9 percentage points from the previous election, is deeply disturbing. For only the second time in the post Nazi period, the radical right has won seats and influence in the Parliament, and will be able to press the weakened Christian Democrats/Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CDU/CSU) to clamp down on immigration and minority rights and to oppose further economic integration of the European Union. Like right wing populist parties elsewhere, the AfD polled strongest in economically depressed regions, mainly in the former East Germany, but also won over some relatively prosperous former CDU voters.

Less widely noted was the very strong performance of the Free Democrats (FDP) which won 10.7% of the vote, up 6.0 percentage points from the previous election, and re-entered Parliament after having been shut out for the past four years. The FDP are the most economically liberal party—much more so than the centre-right Christian Democrats who are reasonably comfortable with a well financed welfare state and strong labour rights. The FDP are also strong supporters of the rigid economic policies of the CDU/CSU at the level of the European Union, backing balanced budgets with low taxes, a strong anti inflation policy on the part of the European Central Bank, and austerity policies for debtor EU members such as Greece which are forced to seek assistance. The FDP are demanding that they gain control of key economic ministries if they are to enter a coalition.

On the left side of the political spectrum, the socialist and ex-Communist Left Party (die Linke) increased its share of the vote slightly to 9.2%. The German Green Party, a pro-environment and socially progressive party, which has previously governed in collation with the Social Democrats, also edged up slightly to 8.9% of the vote. Meanwhile, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) vote fell to a record low of just 20.5%, down 5.2% from the last election. The total progressive/centre-left vote thus fell below 40%.

The SPD were hampered by the fact that they have become an establishment party, having ruled in coalition with the CDU/CSU for the past four years, and having moved in a Blairite, neo liberal direction under former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder who introduced key labour market “reforms” a decade ago. These reforms made jobs more precarious, eroded the bargaining power of unions and divided the left.

The SPD did not put forward a clear alternative economic and social agenda in this election, though they could legitimately claim to have pushed Merkel into introducing a national minimum wage and other progressive policies as part of the past coalition agreement. It should also be noted that Germany has a still robust welfare state, very low unemployment and a still very strong base of secure and well paid industrial jobs.

The SPD have decided, at least for now, to go into Opposition. This seems to be to ensure that the AfD does not play that official role in Parliament, and also to gain some time for renewal and reflection.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of the CDU/CSU was widely seen as hugely dominant in domestic political terms before the election and a key force for economic liberalism at the EU and global level. But her party’s vote fell by 8.6% to a dismal 32.9%, or less than one in three voters. If she is to form a majority coalition, she will either have to persuade the SPD to change their minds, or form a coalition with the FDP and the Greens who are very unlikely partners and come from different sides of the political spectrum.

Depressingly, the German elections confirm and continue some key trends in contemporary politics: the rise of right-wing racist parties, the decline of centre-left social democratic parties, and the continued strength of neo liberalism as the dominant ideological force even after a decade of slow growth and rising inequality. Meanwhile, Germany saw little or no echo of the revived progressive politics of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

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