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Explainer: What you need to know about the 2017 German presidential elections

On Sunday, German voters cast their ballots for members of the national parliament, the Bundestag, and Angela Merkel appears poised to serve a fourth term as chancellor. But with a much-diminished number of supporters, fierce populist opposition, and warring coalition allies, her tenure could prove tenuous.

Populism has surged in the nation, carrying into parliament representatives from both the so-called “far-Right” and far-Left. And Merkel faces the prospect of trying to form a new coalition capable of uniting fiscal conservatives and the Green Party.

How does the German election system work?

Every four years, Germans cast two votes in the national election: the first for a specific party candidate, the second for a political party. Candidates who win individual races are guaranteed a seat. However, in the second round Bundestag seats are awarded by proportional representation to every party that won at least five percent of the national vote.

In the event that a given party wins more than “its share” of seats in the first round of voting, the number of seats in the Bundestag is enlarged to assure each party maintains its proportion of the overall vote (based on the second round results). This year, the Bundestag will have 709 seats, the largest version of the body ever.

What were the results of the 2017 German election?

Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian affiliate, the Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) won the vast majority of voting constituencies in the first round, earning a plurality of the vote in 231 out of 299 districts. However, it suffered a massive decline of eight percent support over the 2013 election. The rival Social Democratic Party (SPD), led by Martin Schulz, had the worst turnout in its postwar history. The populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) exceeded pollsters’ expectations, entering parliament for the first time in its four-year history. The left-wing party Die Linke (The Left) also has a radical platform designed to demolish the status quo. And the most free-market oriented, classical liberal party, the Free Democratic Party, rebounded from the worst election in its history four years ago and returned to the Bundestag under the leadership of 38-year-old Christian Lindner.

The results were:

  • The Christian Democratic Union (CDU/CSU) won9 percent of the vote;
  • Social Democratic Party (SPD) came in second with 20.5 percent;
  • Alternative for Germany (AfD) won 12.6 percent;
  • Free Democratic Party (FDP) earned 10.7 percent of the vote;
  • Die Linke (The Left) came in fourth with 9.2 percent; and
  • Green Party garnered 8.9 percent.

The crestfallen chancellor told supporters on Sunday, “We don’t need to beat around the bush. We wanted a better result, that is clear.”

Who will make up the next coalition government?

After the election, SPD leader Martin Schulz said he was withdrawing from the “grand alliance” with Merkel, formed four years ago. Merkel has ruled out any coalition with AfD, and Die Linke would be an unlikely partner. That leaves what Merkel has called the “Jamaica” coalition: the CDU/CSU, FDP, and the Green Party (named because their parties’ colors – black, yellow, and green – are the same as those of the Jamaican flag). If no coalition is formed, Merkel could rule with a minority government, or call new national elections.

Policy: Where do they stand?

Taxes: The CDU wants to cut taxes by €15 billion euros, the FDP by twice that amount. FDP has sought control of the finance ministry currently held by Wolfgang Schäuble, whose hawkish posture on the deficit has checked initiatives to lower taxes. The Greens, meanwhile, seek to impose a new tax on wealth (not income) similar to the assets tax in France.

European Union: Merkel, whom Germans nicknamed “Mutti” (mother), wields more power than any other politician in the EU. She has been an outspoken proponent of “more Europe,” concentrating all newly accumulated powers in Brussels. EU leaders already look forward to that trend continuing during her fourth chancellorship. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said the next four years would allow Merkel to further “the European integration project.” (A vocal faction of the FDP is notably more skeptical about the EU.)

Eurozone and eurobonds: Merkel had announced her support for the creation of eurobonds and an international budget to transfer wealth from the 19-nation eurozone’s more prosperous to its least prosperous members. That idea looks dead. FDP has said that any “permanent fiscal equalization scheme” or “transfer union” is “unthinkable and a red line for us,” meaning it would trigger FDP’s exit from the coalition. Undeterred, French President Emmanuel Macron, the chief proponent of eurobonds, plans to unveil a more detailed plan on Tuesday.

Defense: The CDU would increase military spending to two percent of GDP, as required by the terms of NATO membership. FDP would prefer to increase that to three percent and favors the creation of a European army. The Greens would cut defense spending and turn more military authority over to the United Nations.

Immigration: Merkel’s fall from grace and the rise of AfD began at the same moment: Merkel’s August 2015 invitation for any Middle Eastern migrant who could reach Europe to settle in Germany. The nation received a record 745,155 applications for asylum in 2016, more than three-times as many as in 2014, according to Eurostat. After her poll numbers began falling, a chastened Merkel moderated her rhetoric, saying, “A situation like the summer of 2015 must not be repeated” (and calling for a ban on Muslim women wearing the burqa “wherever possible”). The Greens favor an even more lenient policy for migrants, while the FDP would impose a points system akin to the Canadian system or the RAISE Act recently introduced in the U.S. Senate. Merkel will likely continue to pressure other EU nations to take in Muslim refugees.

The transatlantic alliance with the U.S.: With Merkel at the helm as chancellor, little change is expected in relations with the U.S. Merkel and President Trump share a famously chilly relationship over numerous issues, especially the $65 billion trade deficit. James J. Carafano, a Heritage Foundation scholar, said frankly of the election, “I don't think it's going to impact German-U.S. relations all that much.”

What about the Alternative for Germany (AfD)?

The AfD, with a base of power in northeastern Germany, outperformed election-eve polling data to surge into third place. The party began just four years ago to scrutinize the EU, but it gained popularity by promising a hardline on immigration. The AfD would ban the Muslim burqa or veil, the construction of minarets, and the Islamic “call to prayer.” The party would limit annual immigration to 200,000 people for the nation of 86 million people. It would leave the euro, end bailouts of other EU nations, limit the role of NATO, cut taxes for low- and middle-income earners within a balanced budget framework, and reinstate the military draft. Some of its members have joked about shooting migrants or criticized a memorial to the Holocaust.

AfD leader Alexander Gauland promised uncompromising opposition in the Bundestag, telling government leaders, “We’re going to hunt them. We’re going to hunt Frau Merkel.”

Yet within hours of the election, fresh turmoil roiled the AfD. The newly elected Frauke Petry, one of its top spokespeople, said she would not join the Bundestag as an AfD member but would serve as an independent.

What’s next?

Merkel will seek to form a coalition by late December. Despite Schulz’s statements, on Monday Merkel appealed to SPD to continue their alliance.

The “Jamaican” alliance more closely resembles a Balkans nightmare. Both coalition partners – the FDP and Greens – are polar opposites. They are unlikely to compromise on their core principles and have a history of mutual ill-will.

Lindner learned the lesson of former FDP leader Guido Westerwelle, who tamped down pressure for tax cuts in 2009 after being named foreign minister. Four years later, FDP suffered a devastating loss, the worst in its history, falling below the threshold needed for a seat in the Bundestag. Lindner told voters this year, “If we can’t make a difference then it is our responsibility to go into the opposition.”

Meanwhile, the Green Party despises the right-leaning party. Greens co-chair Cem Özdemir has called the FDP an “anti-party,” opposed to everything progressives believe in. “I don’t see how we should come together with the FDP.” A Green official in the Bundestag, who wished to remain anonymous, used more evocative language, telling Politico, “When it comes to the climate and the economy, the FDP is the devil.”

The “Jamaican” alliance could easily prove brittle and fractious. To avoid that, Merkel will co-opt the policies of her two coalition members whenever politically viable, as she seeks political moderation. As Deutsche Welle put it, during her grand alliance with SPD the centrist Merkel led “the social-democratization of the CDU … She neutralizes the opposition. It's just that sometimes the CDU isn't sure any more what about her is still conservative.”

(Photo credit: Vibrant Pictures. Shutterstock. Editorial use only. This photo has been cropped.)


Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.