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Germany goes to the polls Sunday. Here’s what to expect.

- September 22, 2017

Germans are heading to the polls on Sunday for parliamentary elections that will determine the new government. Unlike France and the Netherlands, where people worried about a potential political earthquake if the far right did well, few people fear a crisis. Germany’s economy appears sound and unemployment is at the lowest levels in decades. The political debate over refugees has somewhat subsided due to a substantial drop in asylum applications (150,000 through the first eight months of 2017, compared to a total of 750,000 in 2016 and 480,000 in 2015).  While 56 percent of Germans still cited immigration as the nation’s most pressing challenge in 2017, the number pales in comparison to the share of the previous year (83 percent). So what is likely to happen when voters go to the polls?

The center-right CDU is likely to win

Angela Merkel, the current Chancellor for the center-right CDU/CSU party (the CSU is the CDU’s Bavarian “sister” party), is doing well again, after a controversy over her decision to open the doors to refugees. Her approval rating is where it was before the onset of the migrant crisis. Both Donald Trump’s election and the turmoil surrounding Brexit-negotiations have provided the chancellor with the opportunity to present herself as a safe pair of hands in uncertain times.

For a short period earlier this year, Angela Merkel appeared vulnerable. The Social Democratic party sprang a surprise with an unexpected candidate for the office of chancellor – the former president of the European Parliament Martin Schulz. He exploited favorable media coverage and some voter fatigue with Merkel, and for a little while opinion polls suggested he might beat her in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup:

However, Schulz’s lackluster performance on the campaign trail along with the underlying weakness of the Social Democrats in recent years led to a slump in party support. They are now back to where they were in the most recent federal elections, where they have been consistently beaten by their center-right rivals. According to the latest polls, the SPD may even suffer its worst ever postwar result:

Here’s how the different parties are faring

Angela Merkel’s CDU has kept moving further to the left. Merkel recently blessed a parliamentary vote to legalize same-sex marriage, even though her party had consistently opposed the measure (Merkel voted against the bill). While she has partly walked back her policy of an open border for migrants, she also presented herself as a moderate “law and order” candidate on the campaign trail, vowing to hire additional police officers and expedite deportations.

The party’s move to the left has helped attract centrist and left-leaning voters (who liked Merkel’s openness to refugees), and hence undermine the SPD. It has also exposed the CDU/CSU’s right flank to the right-wing populist AfD, which has moved away from hostility to the EU to become an anti-immigrant party.

The SPD are still directionless

The SPD, which is the CDU’s main rival, but also the junior partner in Merkel’s coalition faces the general problem of the European center left – carving out a distinctive identity that is attractive to voters. College-educated progressives are more at home in the Green party. Centrist social democrats can vote for Angela Merkel without abandoning their social conscience. Parts of the working class have migrated into either the left or right-wing populist camps.

The SPD may very well be each of those groups’ second choice, but has been stuck at 25 percent support for the last decade. Even though Martin Schulz hinted at a more left-leaning policy approach, the SPD has refused to seriously entertain the idea of a leftist coalition with the Greens and Left party at the federal level. That leaves it with but one option: junior coalition partner to Angela Merkel. That such a prospect does little to galvanize its own base goes without saying.

The Left party has yet to come to terms with its past

The Left party, which combines West German leftists disaffected with the SPD and East Germans who are nostalgic for the Communist era, indicated that it was open to forming a coalition with Martin Schulz if he promised to roll back labor market reforms enacted by Gerhard Schröder between 2003 and 2005. The Left party’s half-hearted attempts to come to terms with its past (along with its continued praise for socialist dictators) and radical rejection of German military engagements abroad make it difficult for the SPD to work together with it at the federal level without losing voters.

The radical right is not going away soon

The AfD (Alternative for Germany) has won seats in 13 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments since its founding a mere four years ago. It appears on the brink of being the first right-wing populist actor to firmly establish itself in Germany’s political party system. Initially formed with the intent of representing a eurosceptic alternative to the Free Democrats, the AfD has embraced a more traditional anti-immigration right-wing populist approach since an internal split in the summer of 2015.

Although the party had just three percent in some polls after the split, the subsequent refugee crisis breathed new life into the AfD. While the party’s poll numbers have gone down from 13-15 percent a year ago to around 10 percent today, the continued challenges related to the integration of migrants should present the AfD with plenty of political opportunities beyond 2017.

The Free Democrats are likely to return

Fresh off the heels of two surprising state election results in which the FDP obtained 11.5 and 12.6 percent of the vote earlier this year, Germany’s sole true proponent of “limited government” appears poised to re-enter the Bundestag after failing to cross the five percent threshold for the first time in its history in 2013.

Having focused almost exclusively on small government tax and economic policies under previous leaders, the party’s young chairman Christian Lindner has tried to broaden the FDP’s policy profile. By no means eurosceptical, Lindner has nonetheless voiced his disapproval of some proposed integrationist eurozone policies (such as a common budget) while expressing tacit support for a “Grexit.” The party has moreover recently struck a significantly less welcoming tone on migration.

Merkel has stolen the Greens’ key issues

Merkel has co-opted Green policy positions on migration and energy such as the phasing out of nuclear energy. This means that the Greens have become a victim of their own success. Getting green policies now no longer requires voting for the Green party and some of its more unusual proposals. As Germans have also cooled on the idea of open borders, the party’s continued embrace of the country’s “welcoming culture” is unlikely to win new votes.

What is likely to happen?

Most indicators still suggest a continuation of the grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD. This was once seen as an aberration that would only happen under exceptional circumstances (as was the case during the first, and until recently sole, such alliance between 1966 and ’69). However, if the coalition reforms again, it would mean that by 2021, Germany might very likely have been governed by this coalition for 12 of the last 16 years.

Another possibility would be a so called “Jamaica” coalition, reflecting the colors of the Jamaican flag, between the Christian Democrats (whose party color is black), the Free Democrats (yellow), and the Greens. Moderate Greens might push for such an alliance to try to break the traditional left/right mold at the federal level in which the Greens only have a chance of power as part of a left-of-center alliance with the SPD and possibly the Left party.

Angela Merkel’s repositioning of her own party has made such a coalition more feasible. The FDP and Greens might be made nervous though, by the fact that all of Merkel’s junior coalition partners have subsequently experienced substantial losses in support. In a more fragmented six-party parliament, coalition negotiators will have their work cut out for them.

Philipp Adorf is a research assistant at the University of Bonn. He recently authored a book on the increasing role the South and Evangelicals play within the Republican Party.