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Countdown Germany: Day -0.5

by Saturday Sat Sep 17th, 2005 at 07:53:39 PM EST

In the last nights before elections, the news situation usually gets thin. Politicians do not want to stay up all night, to be prepared for the next, long day. As do the reporters. Whom I am dependent on, sitting here with my notebook in a flat in Berlin-Neukölln, election district 83 (with no one else around but a cat named Akira, poor poor me).

So, I guess I have to turn to the big picture.

  • The long-time table of German election results
  • German politics now: The times they are a-changin'

The long-time table of German election results

If you want to get an impression about the traditional structures of (West) German politics, the following table, which I fetched from one of my favourite election sites, election.de, might help. It shows the absolute and relative numbers of all votes cast in all federal elections (Bundestagswahlen) since 1949:

.Party               Votes        Percent          Seats      Districts

Eligible       673 597 485
Voters         568 825 056           84.4
Invalid votes    9 603 335            1.7
Valid votes    559 221 640          100.0          7 967          3 997
CDU/CSU        243 374 969           43.5          3 648          2 305
SPD            212 463 838           38.0          3 148          1 616
FDP             48 100 474            8.6            716             28
GREENS          19 046 977            3.4            228              1
PDS/Left         7 627 910            1.4             85             11
Others          28 607 472            5.1            142             36

You have to take the table with caution, of course, because not all parties existed all the time. The Greens first competed in 1980, and they first managed to get seats in 1983. The PDS first competed in 1990. The relatively large number for "others" contains to a large extent the parties that are history now, such as the Communist Party (KPD), the Alliance of German Expellees (GB-BHE), the German Party (DP), or the Bavaria Party (BP).

But the table surely shows something: That (West) Germany is - or better: was - a conservative country. About 31 Million more votes were cast for CDU/CSU than for SPD. This is also reflected in the number of years these two parties held the chancellorship: From 1949 to 2005, CDU held the chancellory for 36 years (64 % of the time), SPD only for 20 years (36 % of the time). The emergence of the Greens actually did not change too much in the system, since they acquired their votership from ecologigal-minded parts of the SPD and social-liberal parts of the FDP. The only result was that the FDP did not play its role as a pivot any more, and that from now on two camps competed.

German politics now: The times they are a-changin'

But the real change is underway now, and it has been for the last 15 years. It is becoming clear that re-unification also fundamentally changed German electoral politics. Not only electoral politics, but also the whole political culture. Many people from West Germany did not (and often still do not) want to realise it, but the fact is: The old political system of the Federal Republic of Germany is history. In the early 90s, everybody in the west smilingly looked at the voting patterns in the east, which were really strange: No strong party affiliations, mysterious voting behaviour and strangely fast and sudden changes of voting preferences. "That's all right", you could hear the Westerner say: "They don't have the democratic traditions we have. Give them some time, and party affiliations and mass voting stability will grow, just as in the west." And why should he have been wrong? - The whole political, economic and social system of the BRD was transplanted into the former GDR. Most people expected that, consequently, the political culture of the west would also be transplanted into the east.

This is as far from thruth as Walter Ulbricht, president of the GDR, in 1961 when he said that "no one wants to build a wall." In fact, during the 1990s, the west adapted voting patterns of the east. Tradidional party affiliations dissolved to a large part - except Bavaria. In the election results graphs, the "change from last election"-bars for all parties became larger and larger. Suddenly, politicians had to be enormously careful in order to be re-elected, for they could not count on a solid voter base any more. On the one hand, this made German politics much more populist - on the other hand, why should an enhanced voter awareness of current political problems, an enhanced democratic accountability and democratic change be a bad thing?

To put it short: The dissolving of traditional party clientele is a good thing because it is more democratic. Tradition meant that a voter is bound to a party; but it should be the other way around: Parties and politicians should be bound to the voter. This is one side - the good side - of the coin. The bad side is: The German political system as of now is not prepared to cope with that change. Especially during these times of social and economic distress, when reform is necessary, non-aligned voters tend to turn away from the governing party quickly. In the US, you know this as the midterms-effect. In Germany, it is the elections of regional state parliaments (Landtagswahlen). During the second half of his chancellorship (i.e.: 1990-1998), Helmut Kohl's CDU lost grip of most regional state parliaments. Voters seemed to strive for a balance by voting for the other party in regional state elections. This resulted in an SPD-dominated Bundesrat (the other chamber besides the Bundestag), which was able to block the most important reform efforts of Kohl's government. Kohl complained about the blockade, and the voters agreed: In 1998, voters decided to end it - but they did it, in contrast to what Kohl had in mind, the easiest way: By electing Schröder in a single election rather than waiting several years and electing CDU candidates in different regional states elections. From 1998 until now, this situation was reversed: Schröder took Kohl's part, CDU took the part of the SPD. Again, alienated voters caused a political stalemate between the two chambers. When, as I expect, Angela Merkel wins the elections today and forms a coalition with the FDP, the carousel will move on the same way.

In the end, this means that German politics has developed cycles with periods in which the political system has a capacity to act versus periods in which political decision-making is, to a large part, blocked. In my perception, former periods and latter periods are about equally distributed. Under any circumstances, this can not be wishful. The federal system itself badly needs reform. The parties actually acknowledged the problem and formed what in US-politics would be a bipartisan commission. It acknowledged that it is only because of this blurring of political competences - tax policy, education policy, economic policy, social policy: almost every important single issue has to be decided on in both the Bundestag and the Bundesrat - that voter alienation as described above can cause a political stalemate resulting in a blockade situation. The goal was to divide up the political competences between federal and regional level which have become blurred in the last decades. But it failed. Both big parties were not able to reach a consensus.

So, what now? Is federal reform on anybody's agenda? - I feel like waiting for rain in the Sahara. I am usually not the guy who writes in bold letters, but please allow me this one:


Everybody in this campaign talked about jobs, taxes, foreign policy. Sure, these are important issues. But, if we want to make the German political system fit for the 21st century, the crucial task is federal reform. Only a reformed political system will enable us to make good use of the historical developments of and since 1989/1990.

I have not been able to integrate the new Left Party into this picture. But I think that it belongs in there, as I assume that it might play more than just a transitional role. I added this to my diaries-to-do-list.

You can take away power from the Bundesrat. Not a good idea, IMO. Or you have each state's Bundesrat delegation elected by the voters, in state-wide elections, in analogy to the US Senate. I'd strongly prefer the second option. But I must confess I doubt that either one of these will become reality.

If you can't convince them, confuse them. (Harry S. Truman)
by brainwave on Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 12:15:23 AM EST
This is not necessarily about taking away power from the Bundesrat. Or the Bundestag. A federal reform would rather have to disentangle political competences. A tax reform bill should be passed by the Bundestag without the Bundesrat's possibility to veto. And the Länder should be able to shape education policy without the Bund interfering. To name just two of many fields in which competences have become blurred.

This would have at least two big advantages: Firstly, blockading whole reform bills would not be as easy as it is now, given a cohabitation scenario between Bundestag and Bundesrat. Secondly, politics would become more transparent: Voters in regional elections would not be expected to simultaneously decide on federal politics, which now is the case. In the recent past, regional elections have become more and more hypocritical because their formal quality (electing a regional parliament) and their factual quality (also influencing federal decision-making via the Bundesrat) were incongruent. By stopping this, the task of voting would become more easy, more transparent and, hence, more democratic.

by Saturday (geckes(at)gmx.net) on Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 07:26:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Interesting, from my Polish perspective German post unification politics seems quite stable. Let me explain by going over all the post communist electoral results, starting in the first, partially free elections of 1989

  1. Senate and part of the lower house have free elections, the majority of the lower house is reserved for the communists and their puppet parties. Result: candidates nominated by Solidarity sweep every single freely contested seat in the lower house, all except one in the Senate. Seeing the writing on the wall, enough communist and puppet party parliamentarians split off to give a majority to a unified Solidarity government.

  2. Solidarity by now splintering into numerous parties, which between them get most of the votes. Unstable governments as the parties bicker. Main division is between the old dissident movement and those who became prominent post 1980 and are generally more to the right.

  3. Most of the Solidarity parties disappear as the post communists and the peasant party win the elections.  The seat distribution is far more skewed than the vote as right wing parties get only a miniscule number of seats in spite of winning close to a third of the vote: 5%/8% threshold proves fatal to the splintered right. Main opposition is the old dissident party, the UW.

  4. The AWS, a cobbled together coalition of the right wing parties under the umbrella of Solidarity, wins a convincing victory and governs in coalition with the UW. Parties continually split off and by the last year of the parliament there is a very weak minority govt.

  5. The AWS and the UW both fail to get into parliament. The post communist SLD gets about 40% of the vote and about 50% of the seats. The two main opposition parties are the PO - the ultra-liberal right wing minority of the old UW with a few ultra liberals from the AWS and PiS, a bunch of AWS types under the aegis of the Kaczynski twins who had been the organizing genius behind the AWS but had split off almost immediately.

2005, next week: Recent polls have given the ruling SLD about 9-13% of the vote, the PiS 20-25% and the PO 33-38%.  Two extremist parties should get 15%-25% of the vote between them.

Now that is what I call instability - ruling parties disappearing completely or turning into sliver ones comparable in size to the FDP or Greens.  Even the new Laender have nothing to compare to that.

by MarekNYC on Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 04:05:17 AM EST
To prevent a misunderstanding: I did not talk about instability (in fact, I did not use the word once). The diary was about the loosening of traditional voter preferences and its consequences. In comparison to the Polish situation (BTW: please write more about that!), talking about instability in German politics would indeed be a blatant exaggeration.
by Saturday (geckes(at)gmx.net) on Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 07:37:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I thought they were centrists, at least on economic/social (rather than moral) issues.
by swedish liberal on Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 05:14:59 AM EST
I would say that on economic/social issues, the terms "conservative" and "centrist" do not take you too far. Traditionally, CDU is more employer-friendly and has a production-centred approach while the SPD, as the worker's party, favours a demand-centred approach. But during the last 10-20 years, differences between the big parties diminished, no matter this campaign's rhetorics.
by Saturday (geckes(at)gmx.net) on Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 07:50:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A fantastic overview, very informative...excellent writing...I've learned a ton about the German system from you (jandsm, PeWi, et al). Thank you!!!

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 07:46:15 AM EST

If you want to use this as a tip jar, feel free to do so :)

by Saturday (geckes(at)gmx.net) on Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 07:51:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 01:50:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
By the way, when will we know the vote results? Sunday evening? Monday?

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 07:57:13 AM EST
  • First prognosis: 18.00 MEST.
  • First projection: ca. 18.20.
  • Preliminary official result: probably late evening.
  • Definitive official result: not before the postponed elections in the Dresden district.
by Saturday (geckes(at)gmx.net) on Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 08:28:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
and all the votes are hand counted. nothing electronic here
by PeWi on Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 09:33:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That's not true, 2.5 million voters (in 2100 of the 80000 polling stations, for example in Cologne) will vote using voting machines constructed by Nedap from the Netherlands...
by ltl on Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 09:41:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I stand corrected, thanks
by PeWi on Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 09:49:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You can get live streaming of German TV election coverage, starting at 17:00, polls close and first prognosis at 18:00.

Phoenix is the documentation/information channel of public broadcasters ARD and ZDF. They present prognosis and projections from both ARD and ZDF and cut to interesting interviews on both channels.

For projections on the web:

by ltl on Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 09:35:32 AM EST
I read recently that 1997 was a momentous election because it was the first time post WWII that power changed hands because of voting patterns and not because or a change in party alliances. Is that correct?

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 09:52:38 AM EST

Yes, it is true: 1998 were the first elections that dropped a government and chose a completely new government. Former changes of government were never complete (one party of a coalition always remained), and were always because of changes in party alliances.

  • 1966: CDU/FDP --> CDU/SPD
  • 1969: CDU/SPD --> SPD/FDP
  • 1982: SPD/FDP --> CDU/FDP
by Saturday (geckes(at)gmx.net) on Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 10:07:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
True, but somewhat misleading. From the time the CDU/CSU lost its absolute majority to the rise of the Greens the only way a government could be formed was with two of the three existing parties; the kind of complete changeover that you saw in 1998 was simply a mathematical impossibility.
by MarekNYC on Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 12:54:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
it would have been the case if one or two parties in opposition won the absolute majority in a single election.
by Saturday (geckes(at)gmx.net) on Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 01:38:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Just as a small historical note - the early years of the Bundesrepublik were characterized by the CDU/CSU absorbing all other right wing parties. The pattern tended to be that they enticed the more amenable politicians to join them and then forced the remnants below the 5% barrier. Two parties were outright legally destroyed in the early fifties: the KPD and the extreme right wing SRS. That was done using a constitutional provision that allows the banning of parties that oppose the basic constitutional order. That concept is largely a reaction to the NSDAP's ability to successfully contest elections while pledging to destroy democracy, and to a lesser extent the powerful presence of the anti-democratic KPD on the left.  Recently there was an attempt to ban the extreme right NPD. It failed because courts decided that its upper ranks were so riddled with Verfassungsschutz (German internal security, literally 'Office for the Protection of the Constitution) informers that it was impossible to truly prove what the party's views are. All extremist party's are systematically monitored by the Verfassungsschutz and have to keep their rhetoric within certain limits otherwise they'll be destroyed. Furthermore, being a member of an extremist organization, even a legal one, can have serious consequences, namely the so-called Berufsverbot - being barred from every and any public sector job.
by MarekNYC on Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 12:49:20 PM EST

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