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The final stretch: Can fearmongering swing the German electorate?
One week to go. On Sunday, September 26, German citizens will cast their ballots in a watershed general election. After 16 years as chancellor, Angela Merkel is leaving office. For the 2.8 million first-time young voters in these elections, they will not have witnessed another chancellor in Berlin while growing up, going to school and learning to understand – or turn away from - the complexities of German politics.
A record number of voters has already cast their ballots. Given the Covid-19 pandemic and rising infection rates in Germany, the possibility of sending in your postal vote to the municipal office is being used by millions of citizens. Their impact will be felt on election night as the postal ballots are only counted after all in-person votes have been processed. This could delay the official announcement of the final result until later on Monday.
As the saying goes, a week is a long time in politics. One more televised debate with the three competing candidates for chancellor took place on Sunday. The last week will see vigorous last-minute efforts by all parties to rally their electoral bases. But opinion polls will not be published anymore during the last seven days ahead of the vote. The mobilisation of citizens to cast their ballot is expected to contribute to a higher participation rate in the forthcoming elections. If nothing else, this would already be a success story after a decade of repeatedly declining levels of voter participation.
For some parties the last week of campaigning is desperately necessary to make up lost ground and possibly overtake one of their competitors. This is most acutely the case for the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and their candidate for chancellor, Armin Laschet. Trailing the Social Democrats (SPD) in the latest opinion polls, the CDU has focused its last-minute campaign strategy on a combination of fear and warnings of impending doom. Their slogans claim that the SPD and its candidate for chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is prepared to enter into a three-party coalition with the Greens and the leftist Die Linke. German party politics is a colourful affair. The SPD is traditionally characterised as red, the Greens obviously green and Die Linke dark red. Thus, the CDU (which is always coloured black) is shouting from the top of their voices about the impending “danger” of a ‘red-green-red’ governing coalition.
We have been there before. Such a strategy was successfully applied by the CDU more than a decade ago under the slogan “red socks campaign” (Rote Socken). In the past, such a rhetoric of fear often fell on fruitful grounds, in particular in traditional, rural constituencies and among voters with stronger religious affiliations. It will be interesting to observe, if in Germany in 2021, voters can still be persuaded to reconsider their preferences because the fear of a ‘leftist takeover’ is seen as the greater danger than existing climate change challenges and the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Olaf Scholz could easily put such a political ghost to rest by publicly rejecting a coalition which includes Die Linke. He may personally even want to do so. But his party is keeping this political option available. Giving in to the CDU’s fear campaign would imply that the SPD deprives itself of negotiation leverage after Sunday’s elections; provided the Social Democrats come in as the leading party. The SPD and Scholz would want to have various alternatives available in terms of negotiating the configuration of coalition government. As a three-party arrangement is the most likely outcome, different constellations are possible and they promise complex deliberations as well as the arduous search for compromise.
Two coalition options are indeed excluded. Both the SPD and the CDU do not want a new ‘Grand Coalition’. That option has politically exhausted itself and it is now also mathematically nearly impossible as no single party is expected to gain more than 25 percent of the vote. The second no go option concerns the right-wing populists Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). All other parties expected to surpass the threshold of five percent for representation in the Bundestag have excluded any form of cooperation with the AfD.
This point of departure gives added importance to the chances of the Liberal Democrats (FDP, colour yellow), a party that could play an important king maker role in any three-party coalition formation. They came close to forming a so-called ‘Jamaica coalition’ four years ago with the CDU and the Greens, but pulled out at the last minute with an explanation that became famous, or infamous, pending on how one looks at the statement politically. The party leader Christian Linder argued back in 2017 that it would be “better not to govern, then to govern badly.” The consequence of this decision were four more years of a Grand Coalition between the CDU and SPD under chancellor Merkel.
German politics have changed during these past four years. Parts of the electorate has turned greener, while the SPD has again found its footing and the AfD appears here to stay. It is the CDU that now appears in decline, a party that often behaved as if it considered the office of chancellor its birthright during the past 16 years. The CDU is turning to a last-gasp strategy of fearmongering to mobilise voters. The race is close and the outcome will inform us if such a strategy still has legs in Germany in 2021.
Jens Bastian is senior policy advisor at ELIAMEP.
*This is the third of four contributions by the author about the German Bundestag elections. The final contribution will be published after the outcome of the vote and when the first contours of coalition politics become visible on September 28.