A few days ago, we had federal elections here in Germany. The outcome was a disaster for the labor party SPD who lost over 11,2 percent points of all votes. In all likelihood, a new coalition of conservatives (CDU/CSU) and liberals (FDP) will replace the grand coalition of SPD and CDU.

The results were all but surprising.

The reasons

CDU 27.3% (-0.5) / CSU 6.5% (-0.9)

Both conservative parties CDU and CSU who were already in the grand coalition with the SPD didn’t lose as much as their unpopular socialdemocratic partner, for two reasons:

  • Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) stayed out of controversial day-to-day political bickerings, and concentrated on international politics. By keeping a low profile, she denied the opposition the political ammunition they needed to fight her. Throughout her tenure, she became the most popular politician in Germany… mainly by being boring, colorless, and unemotional.
  • CDU/CSU didn’t disappoint their constituency: by sponsoring a staunch and gung-ho law-and-order policy, including the introduction of internet censorship (“Zensursula” a.k.a. “Stasi 2.0“), broad online and offline surveillance laws including preventive arrests, they catered to the wishes of a wide spectrum of voters craving for an authoritarian regime, esp. in troubled times of terrorism hype and economic crisis.

However, the conservatives’ electoral performance wasn’t optimal. They could have harvested additional votes from people concerned about the “socialdemocratization” of the CDU w.r.t. economic policies. In their mind, the CDU’s christian conservative profile was watered down in the grand coalition with the social democrats up to a point where both parties became indistinguishable. Those people went straight to the FDP.

FDP 14.6% (+4.7)

The liberal democrats gained votes from two different sides:

  • Their radical market wing, which demands a free market economy nearly void of state regulations at the expense of social security and job safety got votes from a CDU constituency that was disappointed by the blind activism of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who threw billions and billions of Euros bailing out banks (like the Hypo Real Estate HRE), and Opel at tax payer’s expenses, instead of letting the market sort itself out.
  • The civil rights wing of the FDP gathered support because they managed to sway the party towards unanimously rejecting the “Zensursula” censorship law and exceedingly broad BKA (german FBI) surveillance laws crafted by the CDU/SPD coalition. Many people who would otherwise have voted for the new Pirate Party (PIRATEN) opted to vote for the FDP, so that their vote wouldn’t get lost to the 5% hurdle required for a party to be represented in the Bundestag.

SPD 23% (-11,2)

The SPD has not only lost the elections, they’ve also lost every contact to the real life of their constituency and will need a long time to recover.

Their main policy during the grand coalition, but also during their previous coalition with the Green party was the Agenda 2010, which among a few positive long-term effects, effectively destroyed Germany’s renowned high social security standards and contributed to a huge increase in low pay 1-Euro/hr. jobs and increasing poverty. One of the most unpopular Agenda 2010 laws (Hartz IV) also stipulated that if you’ve lost your job and were still unemployed after 12 months, you’d have to sell and eat everything you ever earned in your whole life (housing, savings account, life insurance etc.) and be totally destitute, before you could get a reduced monthly minimal unemployment assistance. This radical departure from the earlier status quo alienated huge portions of the working middle class, who felt deeply threatened by those reforms.

The second mistake of the SPD was to increase the minimum retirement age from 65 to 67 years, effectively reducing retirement money of workers who were physically not able to keep up hard jobs at such an age (imagine a 66 years old construction worker climbing on the roofs, or some elderly steel workers in poor health conditions). This adjustment may have been necessary from an economic and demographic point of view, but it prove extremely unpopular in an ageing society.

Another unpopular SPD-sponsored policy whereever they governed in the Länder was the introduction of tuition money (Studiengebühren) for long-time students. Even though the CDU sponsored a 500 Euro per semester tuition money levy for all students in their Länder too, it was the SPD that lost many of the students to the Pirates, who would like to restore the status quo ante of studies without fees. To all those used to tuition fees abroad, please keep in mind that Germany didn’t have them previously, so parents were not saving for their children. The sudden change of paradigm caught many students and rather poor families unprepared, and that’s what caused the ire against a party that claimed to be social.

As yet another leak in the hull of the sinking ship, SPD lost civil rights supporters to the FDP, to the Greens, to the Pirates and to the communists, because they endorsed the “Zensursula” and other law-and-order laws of their CDU partner, and were stubbornly unwilling to reconsider their stance, both politically and in interviews during the last days of the electoral campaign.

Even though it wasn’t widely reported in main stream media, SPD also lost votes of immigrants with turkish background, who were still irate at SPD’s main candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier‘s direct responsibility in willfully prolonging the detention period and suffering of Murat Kurnaz in Guantanamo for many months after him being acquitted of all charges by the American Military. Though Steinmeier expressed regret, he failed to apologize to Kurnaz, and this didn’t ring well with the german-turkish community who traditionally voted SPD at the ballots.

But the main reason for SPD’s dismal performance during those elections was that they categorically ruled out to form a coalition which included the communists (LINKE). Most SPD non-voters realized that this refusal would have lead to a right-wing coalition anyway, and prefered to stay home (or to vote for the communists).

DIE LINKE 11.9% (+3.2)

The communists already had a strong base in East Germany for historical reasons (where they were formerly known as Honecker’s SED). To many East Germans, they were some kind of regional party defending their rights in reunified Germany, much like the regional CSU conservative party in Bavaria.

They gained many votes in the West however, mainly from disgruntled SPD voters, syndicated workers and the unemployed, who didn’t feel well represented by the neo-liberal SPD wingSeeheimer Kreis“, that effectively hijacked the SPD for its own political agenda.

To most of their voters, the LINKE was the only credible opposition party that defended the rights of the poor and losers of the harsh Agenda 2010 reforms. Their increasing popularity was inevitable, because they filled the void in the German political system, that was previously occupied by the (defunct?) social wing of the SPD.

Since the communists were the only ones who opposed the war in Afghanistan, they managed to attract some pacifists’ votes too.

GRÜNE 10.7% (+2.6)

The german Green Party has traditionally been one of the strongest in all Europe, and Germany can be seen as the home of the environmentalist ideology / movement. So it didn’t come as a surprise that they fared well in this ballot.

They gained votes this time, because they were in the opposition and were not involved in day-to-day politics. Furthermore, they rode on a wave of anti-nuclear power sentiment, as SPD environment minister Sigmar Gabriel leaked unsavoury details about Angela Merkel’s involvement in authorizing a nuclear waste storage facility near Gorleben that was not really well-suited for long-time disposal of nuclear material, when she was a minister under Helmut Kohl. While Gabriel may have hoped to gain some votes for his own party, it was the traditionally green anti-nuclear energy movement that did.

Though they have won additional votes, the Greens have outgrown their initial left-wing social and pro-immigrant phase. They have matured up to a point where they have now become part of the rather wealthy urban upper middle class, having more than enough purchasing power to indulge in luxuries like expensive organic food, high-priced green power and investments in state-subsidized alternative energy programs and insulation of houses. In this election, they collected votes from the conservatives and green-minded liberals much more than from the socialdemocrats. However, they are still running strong among students and the youth, despite them becoming part of the very establishment they fought against back then when they were still young. It remains to be seen how their constituency will evolve in the next decade(s).

PIRATEN 2.0% (+2.0)

The most interesting event of these otherwise boring german elections was the fabulous raise of the newly founded Pirate Party (Piratenpartei). With 0.9% (for Germany) in the European elections, they managed to climb to 2.0% in the federal elections with 845,904 votes, just a few months later. For a traditionally slowly evolving german political system, this is remarkable, and more than the 1.5% that the Green Party received the first time they ran for federal elections in the early Eighties.

Pirate voters are believed to be mostly young, male, and Internet enthousiasts. Pirates are strongest among students and the youth. However, older people were also among their voters this time, mainly because of the recent censorship and surveillance laws of the CDU/SPD coalition.

The Pirate Party could very well become the new “Green Party” in Germany — and in other european countries as well, because it is one that is able to motivate the young generation, who feels that its virtual living space is being threatened by so called “offline politicians” who keep creating laws that criminalize their behaviour (like exceedingly harsh copyrights laws and associated 3-strikes-and-you’re-out legislations, and arbitrary wanton filtering of websites).

The future of the Pirate Party in Germany will depend on the ability or inability of the civil rights wing of the FDP to roll back some of the worst surveillance and censorship laws of the CDU/SPD coalition. If they manage to do that, Pirates will be reduced to the basic topic of (re-)legalizing the right of private copying by refocussing on the private copying levy that was introduced in Germany back then in the Sixties.

If the FDP doesn’t manage to roll back the surveillance mania, Pirates could very well face a bright future in Germany in a few decades (all other things remaining equal).

Consequences

So what can we expect from a new right-wing coalition? The pessimists are already fearing the worst and painting a pitch black future, but I’m rather optimistic. The following scenario is quite likely:

  • The CDU/CSU conservatives need to be reelected in many regional elections (next one May 2010 in North-Rhine Westphalia). If they implemented the radical reforms that the FDP demands, like exorbitantly high (flat rate?) private health care insurance and decreased job security and safety, they’d almost certainly not only lose those regional elections; they would also boost the left-wing opposition, and SPD could raise from her ashes again. This runs contrary to their interests, and Merkel has already made clear that she would have none of it.
  • The FDP have not only rediscovered the civil rights topic, they also consider the Pirates as their direct competitors in this area, even though they’ve publicly stated that the Pirates are their partners. I’m expecting them to act as an effective counter-weight to the pro-surveillance and pro-censorship fan boys in the CDU/CSU in an effort to absorbe the Pirates’ civil rights movement.

The first point can’t be overemphasized though: while a left-wing party like the SPD could commit anti-social “atrocities” like Hartz IV, and expect to get away with them (who would oppose them, if we ignored the communists?), a right-wing coalition can’t. If that seems like a paradox, think again: the less social the conservatives get, the more food for the opposition. Right now, CDU/CSU and FDP are delighted at the implosion of the SPD, and they’d rather enjoy that weakness longer than a single 4 years term, if at all possible. This is only possible if they manage to strike a balance between sound economic policy and social wellfaring, being careful of not being too obviously anti-social.

Furthermore, as it is soon payback time for all the subsidies that have been pumped into the banking system and the Abwrackprämie (similar to the US cash for clunkers program, just a lot worse), a lot of tax raises will have to be enacted, and all kinds of subsidies will have to be severely cut back. This is bound to create a lot of bad karma already, so the new government will have to be careful not to overdo it.

Let’s also not forget that most “social atrocities” (reforms) have already been done by the SPD, so there won’t be a lot that the new coalition will have to adjust. The CDU/CSU and FDP coalition will reap the “benefits” from the SPD’s suicidal and self-destructive push for the Agenda 2010, and won’t have to alienate people who could vote for the SPD next time by damaging the social wellfare system any further.

All in all, I see Merkel taking heed of her mentor Helmut Kohl’s wisdom by keeping a low profile and trying to remain in the middle of society.

Another consequence of this (and France’s) election(s) is that it effectively kills the prospects of Turkey (and Morocco) being admitted to the European Union anytime soon. Merkel spearheaded the anti-Turkey movement in Europe even before she was Chancellor. Later she also sabotaged the initial Mediterranean Confederation Initiative — that was thought and conceived as a backup to the European Union for mediterranean countries in case that the EU was torn apart — and that was recently popularized by Nicolas Sarkozy under the monicker “Union pour la Méditerranée“, by insisting that the whole EU became part of it, therefore neutralizing it.

A silver lining?

Perhaps the most important result of those german federal elections was that extreme right-wing parties like the NPD, DVU, REP and CM only got an insignificant amount of votes. Unlike extreme right-wing parties in other european countries who are running rather strong, german extreme right-wingers don’t exist in significant numbers — or at least they don’t show up in votes, which is the most important. This is particularly important for both Jewish citizens, as well as for the recent crop of mainly Muslim immigrants, who have both been demonized by many right-wing pundits as some kind of 5th column or enemy within. Xenophobic scare tactics didn’t work in Germany — at least, not this time. It is also of vital importance for foreigners with darker skin color living in or visiting Germany, which have been assaulted verbally and physically, esp. in East Germany.

However, before we all lay back and enjoy German tolerance and hospitality, let’s have a critical though amused look at the rather weird reaction of Guido Westerwelle, FDP’s party leader at a press conference. His rude behaviour towards that BBC journalist drew some sharp criticism, even though not everyone took it as an offense. ;)