Germany after the elections: A liberal dawn?

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The German elections “have shifted the country towards the right,” but despite the outcome, “the German electorate did not vote for radical change” and instead opted “for clarity and for an end of the unpopular grand coalition government,” writes Timo Behr, a researcher at the Finnish Institute for International Affairs in an October paper. “As a result, tomorrow’s Germany is unlikely to differ radically from that of today,” he opines.  

“On 27 September Germany went to the polls. The big winners of the elections were the Liberals (+4.8%), as well as Germany’s two other mid-sized parties, the Greens (+2.6%) and Die Linke (+3.2%). The biggest losers of the elections were the Social Democrats (SPD) (-11.2%) […] Despite Angela Merkel’s popularity, the electoral standing of the CDU has also deteriorated (-1.4%),” Behr writes. 

“Overall, the elections represent a clear shift in the political spectrum from left to right. They also indicate a further weakening of Germany’s two ‘catch-all’ parties, CDU and SPD, and will lead to a more fluid and less predictable party system,” the author notes. 

According to Behr, the large parliamentary majority that the previous ‘grand coalition’ government commanded in both the Bundestag (lower house) and the Bundesrat (upper house) made it seem apt at overcoming the hurdles of German consensual democracy and initiating reforms. 

“But within a short period of time, the grand coalition’s reforming zeal ran out of steam. The reasons for this are twofold. First, during the first few years of the grand coalition government, the German economy experienced a moderate revival. This meant that there was little incentive for the two parties to force new reforms,” the researcher writes. 

“Second, the coalition government developed a dynamic of one-upmanship, where both partners continuously tried to outbid each other when it came to social policies,” he adds. 

The electorate became increasingly disillusioned with the CDU-SPD alliance and thus “it would be wrong to see the elections as a vote in favour of radical change. Rather, they were a vote against the unpopular grand coalition government,” the author claims. 

“As a result, some friction between FDP and CDU might be unavoidable. In the short run, the domestic agenda will be constrained by next year’s elections in North-Rhine Westphalia; important because of their impact on the government’s majority in the Bundesrat,” Behr stresses. 

“At home, the new government will face a difficult trade-off between the campaign promises of windfall tax cuts and the pressing need of budget consolidation. Differences also remain over healthcare reforms and labour market policies, while there is a consensus on extending nuclear energy and corporate tax reforms,” the author explains. 

“Abroad, there will be few changes as Angela Merkel will dominate her inexperienced new foreign minister on all important foreign policy issues. As before, Germany will seek close ties with the US, but will only reluctantly grow into the role of a more ‘normal’ international actor. In the EU, the new government will seek to play a constructive role, but is unlikely to be the source of new ideas and initiatives,” he claims. 

“Whether the FDP will be able to sell Merkel and the CDU on to a neo-liberal reform agenda in the long run remains to be seen,” Behr concludes. 

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