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During our visit to Berlin from 13-16 February 2017 the understandable primary focus of discussions was on matters relating to Brexit, but another topical theme for debate was the domestic German political situation in the run-up to the Bundestag elections in September this year.
Ahead of our visit, there had been a widespread expectation that Angela Merkel would be re-elected as Chancellor, in all probability as head of another “Grand Coalition” between the CDU/CSU and the SPD. It was not thought possible that the expected electoral arithmetic would permit any other coalition permutation. A number of political events that occurred just before our visit, however, has made the forecast much less predictable. The election of Martin Schulz to be the SPD’s candidate for Chancellor in September together with former Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s election as German President have both served to give the SPD a fillip in the most recent opinion polls.
The commentators we met still believe that the most likely outcome is the re-election of Merkel at the head of a grand coalition (albeit with a sharply reduced majority), and that the SPD’s improvement from its previously languid position may only be a short-term honeymoon period. It is now felt, however, that Merkel is no longer invincible. A “time for a change” mood is gaining some traction and Merkel’s “safe pair of hands (“Mutti”)” reputation has been tarnished to some extent by her handling of issues such as refugee crisis. Other outcomes to the election are now much more credible and are attracting much comment. It is now thought possible that a “Red/Red/Green” coalition (between the SPD, Die Linke and the Greens) could have a Bundestag majority, although it is not assumed that this would be the SPD’s preferred outcome.
Further complications in the potential party balance in the Bundestag come from both a difficulty in predicting the performance of the insurgent Alternative for Germany Party (AfD), and also whether the FDP would clear the 5% threshold to re-enter Parliament. Akin to UKIP ahead of the UK’s 2015 general election, there is some uncertainty in estimating what proportion of the German electorate who sympathise with the AfD’s stance on matters such as immigration will actually translate into votes. Further uncertainty comes from the fact that the AfD can secure support from both the Left and Right of the political spectrum and it is not clear as to whether they will secure votes from both sides equally, or disproportionately from one or the other. The FDP is currently just above the 5% threshold and, should they maintain that position, that will take seats away from the four parties currently represented in the Bundestag.
We also explored the dynamics within the CDU/CSU and Merkel’s own positon. Even given the well-publicised tensions between the CDU and the CSU and the potential threat from the AfD, nobody we spoke to believed that the CDU/CSU alliance would not continue, or that the CSU would prefer to go into opposition should there be another grand-coalition with an ascendant SPD demanding a greater centre-left policy programme. It was also noted that there is currently no heir apparent to Merkel.
All in all, while there was no consensus on the result of September’s election, our discussions with a wide range of politicians, commentators and journalists afforded the group a fascinating insight into the dynamics of domestic German politics and we shall observe the upcoming election campaign from a much more informed position.