Merkel's Moment

Jennifer L Jenkins on what Angela Merkel's election victory means for Germany and for Europe.
By: /
September 27, 2013
Associate Professor of German and European History at the University of Toronto

Germans went to the polls on September 22nd in an election widely seen as a referendum on the policies of Angela Merkel. Chancellor since 2005, Merkel was easily elected to a third term. Known as "Angie" in earlier years and now called "Mutti" (Mum or Mama) by many, Merkel is hugely popular in Germany. There is no questioning her rock-solid support and the appeal of her down-to-earth governing style for the German electorate.  This "one of us" style helped to sell her Euro package at home. As Gideon Rachman wrote in the Financial Times on September 24th, Merkel's attention to domestic repercussions and her support for the German taxpayer in the handling of the Euro crisis is a reason for her success.But there is another, less stable story to tell about the election of 2013. This is the story of Germany's party system, through which the winds of change are blowing. The tremendous showing of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union makes these changes harder to see. But they have already cost Merkel her coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party (FDP, Germany's Liberal Party), which was delivered a stinging defeat by voters. Shifts amongst the smaller parties, and the CDU's need for a coalition partner could signal possible policy changes in the months ahead, however small these changes might be.

The 2013 election was historic in several ways. The CDU – together with its Bavarian wing, the Christian Social Union (CSU) – received its best result in decades, since German unification in 1990 to be exact, taking 41.5 percent of the vote. This was an important victory, which was driven as much by Merkel's movement of the CDU toward the center-left via co-opting environmental policies from the Green Party, as by her deliberate mode of governing.

But other parties did not fare so well, tallying results from weak to disastrous. The Free Democratic Party (FDP) received the worst result in the entirety of its long history (4.8 percent), a result so bad that for the first time since its founding in 1948 it will not be seated in parliament. It did not receive the necessary threshold of 5 percent, the amount needed to enter. The Green Party also suffered a painful defeat, which some members blamed on Merkel's poaching of environmental issues, including abandoning nuclear power. The Left Party likewise lost supporters since the last election in 2009, emerging just a shade stronger than the Greens. Yet, this allowed party leader Gregor Gysi to state that his party is now the third strongest in Germany, highlighting the progress made since their early years as a protest vote in the old East Germany. The Social Democratic Party (SPD), once mighty and now somewhat adrift, trundles along, scoring higher than its very low numbers of 2009, but showing serious deficits in its ability to modernize its message. Its inability to run a top female candidate, for example, being one of its problems. Forty-four percent of German women voted for Angela Merkel, and Merkel is also popular with women who admire her ability but do not particularly care for her politics. The SPD should take note.

One small party did make a splash: the stridently anti-Euro Alternative for Germany (AfD), which emerged last February to the right of the CDU. Its politics are marked by a highly personal backlash against Merkel and her Euro strategy. They received 4.7 percent, a strong showing for a brand new party, particularly one utterly consumed in its anti-Merkel rhetoric.

The national malaise of the smaller parties – frankly of any party other than the CDU and CSU – spells possible changes ahead. The CDU finished just short of an absolute majority and must find a coalition partner to govern. It is unclear which party this could be. The sure money is on the Social Democrats, who would join the CDU in a "grand coalition", but there is an outer chance that it might be the Greens. The view from Athens favours a grand coalition, in the hopes that the SPD would temper Merkel's austerity policies. A CDU-Green coalition would certainly be the more radical choice, given the traditional distance between the two parties, but one that most observers think is unlikely to happen.

But this was Merkel's moment. And she might be, as several commentators have noted, less risk-averse than commonly thought. This was an election driven by domestic issues, and her domestic front is rock solid. She has revitalized and reformed the CDU, the gains of which were clear to see. On Euro policy it appears that much will go on as before, but this depends in the end on the coalition partner, and at the moment Merkel is still looking.