Germany is currently experiencing a political crisis with Chancellor Merkel unable to form a coalition government. The Christian Democrats, along with their sister party the Christian Social Union from Bavaria (CDU/CSU), were the largest party in the September elections ending up with 246 seats falling abysmally short of the 355 needed for a majority in the Bundestag.
Originally, the German chancellor intended on forming the ‘Jamaica’ coalition which would have involved the CDU/CSU, the liberal Free Democrats and the Green Party. Unfortunately for Merkel, the FDP walked away from the table in November, leaving Germany in political paralysis.
Merkel’s CDU/CSU are locked in negotiations with the Social Democrats regarding forming a coalition. They had previously been in coalition since 2013 but were punished by the electorate – polling a mere 20.5%. Entering negotiations with the CDU has fractured the SPD since following the disastrous election, leader at the time, Martin Schulz declared that the SPD would enter a period of opposition. Schulz has not delivered and members of the SPD will vote on the coalition proposal. Schulz has now resigned, leaving new leader Andrea Nahles to resolve the political paralysis.
The internal situation within the SPD is historic as the consequences will leave the future Germany’s oldest political party highly uncertain. It could even be disastrous for the party with the gap widening between the common voter in the industrial heartlands of Germany and the politicians in Berlin. Emphasising this turmoil, the Alternative Fur Deutschland – a right-wing German nationalist party – has overtaken the SPD in the recent INSA poll this past Monday.
The Institut fur neuze soziale Antworten (INSA – Institute for New Social Answers for the non-German volk) is a polling organisation in Erfurt, the German Democratic Republic (DDR) before re-unification in 1991. INSA revealed in the poll that the AfD are second ahead of the SPD by 0.5 percentage points (16% against 15.5%). It is only 0.5% and maybe we shouldn’t trust opinion polls after Brexit and the election of some power-mad pensioner who still thinks he is hosting the Apprentice USA. But, it must be said, it is still very significant.
INSA admitted that there is a three percent margin for error but the apparent collapse of the SPD is significant. The SPD are a party of tradition in German history, let alone politics, forming in 1875. I remember learning about Otto von Bismarck in Year 12 history trying to the suppress and quell support with the Anti-Socialist laws and so-called state socialism. The party is 142 years old and it wasn’t in the script to repairing the wounds of the legacy of Martin Schulz entering coalition negotiations with Merkel.
Measly support which corresponds with the numbers thrown around shows that the SPD are not fulfilling their original aim: acting as a representative for Germany’s workforce. Their 1875 formation corresponded with the industrialisation of the unified Germany under Von Bismarck so could achieve representation of Germany’s urbanising workforce. Such a low percentage for a historic and mainstream political party clearly shows that the SPD has lost sight and that their core support is looking to alternative options.
In industrial states such as Saxony, in the both the first (votes to candidate) and second, votes (to party), the far-right AfD annihilated the Social Democrats. In the first votes, the AfD polled over double and then in the second votes the AfD increased its vote share by 27% whilst the SPD fell from 15.6 to 10.5%. There is clearly a divide between the core vote and the politicians in Berlin – something we saw with the performance of UKIP in 2015 and before Jeremy Corbyn was elected as Labour Party leader. Divided parties do not convey competence and with fractions emerging within the SPD, the electorate will look for other options. Merkel has received intense criticism regarding her refugee policy meaning the two main parties in German politics do not look like viable options. Disillusionment leads to votes for populist parties, mainly the AfD in this context but also Die Linke (far-left party) also profit from this, particularly in the former East. Merkel may have the largest party but the AfD gained 94 seats in the election after polling approximately 13% of the vote. For Germany, when the history is accounted for, this is staggering.
For sure, the SPD’s decision to enter negotiations has changed the landscape of German politics. The events in Germany perhaps follows a similar pattern amongst social democratic parties, particularly in Western Europe. The French Socialists under Benoit Hamon did not make it to the second round of voting in the presidential election and in the Netherlands, the Labour Party polled just 6% and lost 29 seats. And of course, The UK Labour Party have been in opposition for the previous eight years.
Ultimately, social democracy is experiencing a difficult period in its history. The 142 year history of the SPD is not laid to rest by one opinion poll but should negotiations fail it is highly uncertain what Germany’s political landscape will present. What the poll does show is that internal party disagreements have negative consequences on the electorate and how far-right parties are opportunistic and can mop up this support. A unified Social Democrats could come again and challenge the CDU/CSU in future but with them seemingly likely to enter coalition then it is hard to not imagine the gap widening between those in the industrial heartlands of Germany and the political district of Berlin.