On Sunday, Germans go to the polls to choose their next Chancellor. The process if very different from how we select Presidents, but many of the debates and issues would seem at home in America. If all goes as expected, the leadership of Germany will be different, but it’s possible that nothing will change.
The main competitors for the Chancellorship are the incumbent Gerhard Schröder of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Angela Merkel of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU/CSU). Most observers expect Schröder not to be re-elected, with Merkel taking his job. However, the electoral system in Germany is more complicated than America’s (even considering the Electoral College), so some interesting things might happen.
Germany has a complex parliamentary system, so the voters will actually be casting two votes, neither for Chancellor. One vote is for a local representative member of the Bundestag and the other is for their preferred party (more details from Wikipedia). The Chancellor will be the person who can build a large enough coalition in the Bundestag to have at least 50% support. Because “third parties” are much stronger in Germany than they are in America, the success of those parties will be instrumental in determining who the Chancellor will be and the government that the Chancellor will be able to form.
For example, the SPD didn’t have enough representation in parliament by itself after the last two election, so they’ve been allied with the Green Party. Currently the SPD is polling at about 34% and the Greens at about 7%, so that coalition most certainly will not continuing governing the country. They would come close to the necessary majority if the formed a coalition with the formerly-Communist Left Party (polling at about 8%), but that’s unlikely because the SPD does not want to make that coalition.
On the other side, the CDU/CSU is polling at about 42% and their coalition allies, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), are polling at about 7%. The total of 49% is just shy of the necessary total to make a governing coalition.
Other minor parties take up the last few percentage points that either coalition would need to be able to govern.
So, the result seen as most likely (but desired by no one) is that the next government will have to be a “Grand Coalition” of the SPD and the CDU/CSU. Merkel would be selected as the Chancellor since her party had the most seats, but she would lead a weak, divided government. Schröder would probably return to the private sector. The only previous German government to have such a coalition was Kurt Georg Kiesinger‘s utterly forgettable tenure in the late 1960’s. Merkel would very much like to avoid such a scenario, because a Grand Coalition would be too divided to make significant changes in Germany’s course.
The changes Germany needs most are economic. Germany’s economy is not doing well. It’s not a bad situation when compared to most Asian, Latin American, or African economies, of course, but Germany is not keeping pace with its European peers. For example, Germany is currently last in the EU in terms of job creation; according to the CDU/CSU numbers, Germany lost 1000 jobs/week last year. Additionally, with the expansion of the EU to include poorer eastern neighbors, Germans feel a lot of pressure about losing their jobs to lower-paying competitors in Bucharest, Krakow, etc.
It was largely these economic concerns that lead to having the election this year. Unlike America, in which federal elections happen at regular intervals defined by the Constitution, elections in Germany can happen at any time within a four-year period. Typically, the elections are almost fully four years apart so that the ruling party keeps hold of their power as long as possible. This time, however, Schröder called an early election because state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia gave surprising support to the CDU/CSU because of the week economy, weakening the SPD in Berlin to the point that Schröderhad lost his mandate. He called early elections on the hope that he would be able to take advantage of his greater name-recognition and electoral experience and eke out a victory against the favored Merkel. Most likely, the strategy will fail.
If Merkel wins, the biggest change could be in taxation and fiscal policy. The German economy is currently a “social market economy”, meaning that they have sacrificed some financial growth and agility in order to maintain a high standard of living for all. In many ways, this has been remarkably successful, as Germans have significantly more vacation, better health care, lower infant mortality, and more social services in general than Americans have. However, after the €1.25 trillion cost of reunifying East and West, some are questioning the approach. Ireland and the United Kingdom have had much better economic growth the past few years than countries like Germany and France by allowing their economies to be more flexible while providing less security to individuals. Rejection of this approach (called neo-liberalism and often derided as “heartless” or “American”) was one of the primary reasons that the French voted against the EU Constitution in May.
One specific change proposed by Merkel’s controversial shadow Finance Minister, Paul Kirchhof, would drop Germany’s complicated income tax system in favor of a flat 25% tax. Given the reaction to such proposals in American, one can imagine the responses this proposal has received here, from enthusiastic approval by the free-market-oriented FDP (motto: “as much government as needed, as little government as possible!”) and strident opposition from the formerly-Communist Left Party.
Interesting side stories abound in the election. For example, will left-leaning women vote against their party to support Merkel, the first women ever to be a major candidate for Chancellor in Germany? How comfortable will the traditionally conservative and Catholic CDU/CSU be if they are lead by a coalition with FDP since Merkel is a divorced Protestant woman, and the leader of the FDP, Guido Westerwelle, is gay?
As an American expatriate living temporarily in Germany, I found watching the process to be interesting. The election cycle here is much shorter than it is in the U.S., so there seems to be much less time for fund-raising and mud-slinging here than in the U.S. I’ve seen only a few TV commercials, and none of them have been attack ads like we saw last year in Bush-Kerry. The primary means of promoting candidates seem to be setting up tables and tents in public spaces and posters. Often, there are posters on every tree or lamppost for a block, and sometimes there are huge billboards.
I also watched the second and final debate a couple days ago with a few Germans. Instead of simply pairing Schröder and Merkel, this debate also included the leaders of their respective potential coalition partners. My German isn’t good enough to have understood it all, but they talked a lot about the economy, immigration, and Iraq. The candidates all made points that made my hosts nod in agreement or hoot in laughter. More importantly, the candidates answered the questions they were asked and often talked directly to each other.
I was jealous. I wish our debates were that useful. I also like the idea of having the election on a Sunday (when few people work) instead of on a Tuesday.
In all likelihood, the Chancellorship of Germany will change next week. Angela Merkel will be the next Chancellor of Germany, but she might be saddled with a large, ungainly, and unstable coalition that means that Germany will continue having trouble addressing its economic and foreign policy issues.
(poll numbers from here)