A Historic Moment: German Liberals Win
Big in General Elections
On September 27 2009, Germans went to the polls to elect a new parliament. After four years of a so-called “Grand Coalition” of the two biggest parties, the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democratic Party (German acronym SPD) under Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU), voters were ready for a change. Both big parties lost votes, but the CDU/CSU (CSU being the Bavarian “sister party” of the CDU) lost only 1.4 percent, easily remaining the biggest party in Germany. The SPD, however, suffered a catastrophic defeat. It lost 11.2 percent to end up with 23 percent, its worst result since the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949. The biggest winners were the Liberals, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), winning 14.6 percent, their best result ever. Here’s how the result looked overall:
Share of the vote (CDU and CSU shown separately)
Wins and losses (in percent of total votes)
What had happened? At the last election in 2005, Germans had essentially voted for a stalemate. The old government of SPD and the Greens (Grüne) had lost its majority, but the CDU/CSU and the FDP that wanted to replace them did not receive a majority either. This was due to the presence of the renamed former East German Communist party, presently called The Left (Die Linke) with whom no one wanted to form a government. Thus the only realistic option was to form a grand coalition of the two big parties, with the CDU as the bigger one getting the chancellorship.
A grand coalition of two main parties that are usually bitter rivals forces both partners to make painful compromises. This tends to strengthen the small opposition parties, and it has done so in 2009. The difference in the losses of the two big parties is that the SPD was torn between its left wing and its right wing over far-reaching reforms to Germany’s generous welfare state. The SPD had initiated these in 2003-2004 under its then Chancellor Schröder. This alienated core supporters, especially trade unionists, who felt betrayed. Many of them defected to The Left.
After the SPD lost the chancellorship in 2005, many in the party repudiated the reforms. Thus when the reforms bore fruit and unemployment dropped from 5 million to 3 million, the SPD did not really claim this success as its own. The result was that the traditional SPD voters stayed alienated, and the people who benefited from the reforms did not give much credit to the SPD.
The CDU, meanwhile, had moved to the left and cultivated centrist voters by adopting policies very similar to the Social Democrats. When the crisis struck the government handled it fairly competently. However it faced quite a bit of criticism for spending public money to save a lot of companies that did not really deserve it, and for offering a “cash-for-clunkers” program to pay people to retire old cars, to boost demand and lower pollution. These interventionist policies infuriated the economic liberals in the CDU, who then opted for the liberal FDP.
Despite a chorus on the left that the economic crisis was all the fault of the evil liberals, the voters obviously did not buy that. The banks in Germany that were hardest hit by irresponsible practices were mostly state-owned already; thus, people felt that bank nationalization was no insurance against recklessness. Moreover the government — including the SPD — had for a long time blamed the crisis essentially on the US; therefore, voters did not quite see how the German FDP was suddenly responsible. Massive state intervention proved to be far less popular than the SPD had thought it would be; as a result, the party was seen as the advocate of throwing taxpayers money to companies that deserved to fail.
Moreover, the reputation of the FDP for being competent in economic policy matters did not suffer, and that of the CDU also stayed higher than that of the SPD. Since the economy was uppermost on people’s mind, this benefited them. Those who felt that the market economy and liberalism were to blame voted Left or Green. The SPD was caught in the middle.
The CDU/CSU and the FDP will now form the next government. The voters have given them a clear mandate. Four more years of the Grand Coalition did not look appealing. No one wanted a coalition with the Left party. The FDP had refused to contemplate an alliance with the SPD and the Greens. This would be the only way for the SPD to gain the chancellorship. The voters therefore went for the most realistic alternative.
For the FDP, the 11 long years in opposition proved to be time wisely spent: the party become more ideological, preferring opposition to a shaky three-party coalition in 2005. It stressed market-friendliness in a country where the public sector eats up almost half of GDP. This strong stand on economic issues gave the party a clear identity and an ever-growing share of the votes. Startlingly, it gained even some 500,000 votes from the Social Democrats — voters that felt troubled by the leftward lurch of their party. These were working people who felt that their tax burden was high enough already and were open to the FDP’s message of tax reform. The FDP targeted such people, those whose ingenuity and efforts keep the country afloat and who feel overburdened with ever-growing demands for redistribution. Below is a T.V. commercial of the FDP (with English subtitles) that subtly makes the point. Enough people agreed with it to give the party a historic win.