Quick Thoughts on the German Election

I think they're headed for a traffic light

The top-line stories about yesterday’s German election are about the decline of the CDU/CSU (which won a lower percentage of the vote than ever in postwar history) and the increased fragmentation of the German political system. And both of those stories are correct. But I think there’s more to see in the weeds that will bear importantly on the nature of the next government, and that could have longer-term implications as well.

In terms of the coalition negotiations, I think the two most important facts about the election result was that a Red-Green-Red coalition is not mathematically possible, but a Black-Green-Yellow “Jamaica” coalition is. The collapse of the far-left Linke party, combined with the relative recovery of the CDU/CSU from its low point in the polls and the underperformance of the Greens relative to their standing only a few weeks ago together imply that the next German government will definitely contain a party to the right of the SPD, whether that party is the liberal (in a European sense of free-market) centrist FPD or the conservative (also in a European sense) CDU/CSU. And that, in turn, changes the dynamics of who has the leverage, and therefore what a viable coalition is going to look like.

To be specific, if Linke had done better then the Greens and the SPD would be incentivized to quickly come to an agreement and then present the FDP with an ultimatum: make reasonable demands to join the coalition or we can turn to Linke instead. Preventing an outright left-wing government might have been enough to bring the FDP to come into the fold, but if it wasn’t they would have other options. All of which would mean that the Greens would have been in the position to demand the most to form that core coalition. The SPD would provide the chancellor, but the Greens might have had vast influence over the new government.

But as things stand, the party with the most leverage is the FDP. They would prefer a coalition with the CDU/CSU, but that coalition isn’t close to having enough seats to govern; they’d need to bring in either the Greens or (much less likely) the SPD. So they would be well-advised to talk both to the Greens and the SPD first—and the SPD has powerful incentives to come to some kind of agreement with the FDP because having done that, bringing in the Greens would be relatively easy.

I think all of that means that a Traffic Light coalition (Red-Yellow-Green) is the most likely coalition to come out of the forthcoming negotiations, but in that coalition Yellow (the FDP) will have influence disproportionate to their numbers. Which means that on the core fiscal and economic questions that animate the FDP, the government is going to be more centrist and small-c conservative than SPD and Green voters probably hoped. And yet the opposition will be from the further right CDU/CSU and the extreme right AfD. If I had to guess, the implications of that will be that Linke will have an opportunity for revival, while the CDU/CSU will have incentives to try to co-opt the AfD’s voters. Those dynamics, then, will shape the next phase of German politics in the background of whatever the next government decides to do.

A final word on fragmentation. Yes, it’s alarming on some level that the staid and stable German political system has become so much more fragmented. However: this is not the worst thing in the world. A three-party coalition is much better for democratic accountability than a grand coalition of the two largest parties, which is what has been governing Germany since 2013. Unless we get another such coalition (or a variant that also includes the FDP or the Greens), which I think is very unlikely, the next government will have a leading opposition party with a broad geographic and social base.

That is good. But it is only possible because of fragmentation. If you imagine a world in which the SPD and the Greens were a single party, and the CDU/CSU and FDP were another single party, then the only possible coalitions would be a grand coalition between the two dominant parties—which would make the AfD the opposition—or a coalition between the imagined CDU/CSU/FDP and the AfD. Either would dramatically raise the profile of the extreme right. By contrast, the simple fact of fragmentation makes multiple possible governments possible even in conditions where the electorate is fairly evenly divided between left and right.