German Elections: Don’t Count On Jamaica – Toni Michel

Germany’s parliamentary elections on September 24 saw only one viable coalition emerge: the “Jamaica” coalition of the Conservatives, the Liberals and the Greens. But one player among them might as well profit handsomely from the failure of coalition negotiations.

The Liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) emerged as one of the main victors of parliamentary elections in Germany. The party had been wiped out in the 2013 elections after 4 years of coalition government with Merkel’s Convservatives. It even failed to clear the Bundestag’s 5% entry threshold. Last Sunday, they roared back into the Bundestag with a solid 10,7% of the vote.

Union = Merkel’s Conservatives / SPD = Social Democratis / AfD = far-right populists / FDP = Liberals / Linke = populist Left / Grüne = Greens / Sonst. = Others

Now, with election results as they are, everyone expects FDP to enter into the single viable coalition with Mrs. Merkel and the Greens. There are, however, already some significant hurdles in the way of such an alliance, namely tensions between the Conservatives and the Greens. Should the talks fail for whatever reason, new elections could become quite likely should the Social Democrats not enter into a third, possibly suicidal, marriage with Mrs. Merkel out of a sense of duty for the country. In any event, the Liberals would profit handsomely.

Let me explain. First, FDP does not really want to be in government. This seems paradoxical, but history has shown that smaller coalition partners tend to loose massively after 4 years – whatever their actual governing performance. This has been true in particular for all coalition partners of Mrs. Merkel since 2005! The Liberals themselves made this experience after their time in government, 2009-13.

For a party which is reasserting their place in German politics, an opposition role is much more convenient to gain profile without taking responsibility for controversial decisions. And nobody should doubt that controversy will be ingrained into the new parliament, given the growing politisation of Germany in the context of refugees, Trump and income inequality. A continuation of the Grand Coalition (SPD-Conservatives) would thus also play into FDP’s cards.

More importantly, however, the events since the ballot on September 24 would see the Liberals’ vote share rise even higher in case of fresh elections. This is because FDP draws support from two sources that have gotten particularly bad press since last Sunday.

The first source is the populist right, namely AfD. FDP is skeptical of the Chancellor’s migration policies and proposes more stringent measures in dealing with those who have no claim to asylum in Germany (Minute 56 onwards):

Like this, they stand ready as a respectable alternative to the AfD which often makes headlines with despicable comments on foreigners, the Nazi past and political opponents.

The same is true on the other side. For conservative voters who are critical of Merkel’s decision to keep Germany’s borders open for refugees in 2015 but who are not prepared to vote for AfD, the Liberals have been a viable alternative.

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Movement of Voters away from the Conservatives, compared to the 2013 Elections

Now, since last Sunday, two things have happened. First, AfD has split – with the party’s chairwoman Frauke Petry leaving AfD because she believes that radical right-wing elements are becoming too strong. There are no numbers as of yet but social media reveals that a massive fissure is running through the party – a clear opportunity for FDP to snatch off more moderate AfD partisans, should there be a new elections.

Secondly, Merkel herself has been rather shamefully dodging responsibility for the Conservatives’ disastrous showing in the elections – they lost a whopping 8,6% compared to 2013. From Merkel, there has been no clear “I have understood the voters’ message” nor “we will adjust our course.”

This has to do with an upcoming regional election but it certainly has enraged a number of Conservatives within her own ranks who had hoped for a mea culpa and an honest analysis of past mistakes. Again, FDP could certainly sweep a lot of disillusioned voters.

Yet, even though it is clear that the Liberals would stand to gain from the collapse of the “Jamaica” talks and fresh elecitons, we should keep in mind that there is no precedence for this kind of outcome in German history since 1945. But then again, FDP has made history before.

In 1982, when FDP had been governing as a junior partner with the Social Democrats for 13 years already, they simply changed sides in the middle of the parliamentary term to elect the Conservative leader, Helmut Kohl, as Germany’s new chancellor.

Fall of a Chancellor: SPD incumbent Helmut Schmidt (right) congratulates the new Chancellor Helmut Kohl on his election after FDP had switched sides to Kohl

But the 1982 coup came at a heavy price for FDP. Voters were punishing the Liberals at the polls and the party itself was undergoing significant turmoil. Also, pushing the country into a political limbo is neither what parties easily do nor what voters appreciate. Thus, FDP might actually just use their good standing in case of fresh elections as a bargaining chip in coalition talks.

On the other hand, though, coalition talks fall apart all the time for a variety of reasons. If FDP could reasonably expect not to get solely blamed for a collapse of “Jamaica”, who knows if they might not actually push for such an outcome… after all, their election slogan this year has been “Let’s Think Anew.”

FDP Campaign Poster with party boss Christian Lindner and the slogan “Let’s Think Anew.”



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