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Pre-Election Analysis: 2009 German Parliamentary Elections

- September 25, 2009

In our “continuing series”:https://themonkeycage.org/2009/09/election_reports_and_political.html of election analysis from political scientists, we are pleased to have pre-election analysis of this weekend’s “German Parliamentary Election”:http://online.wsj.com/article/BT-CO-20090925-704079.html from “Domink Duell”:http://politics.as.nyu.edu/object/politics.meetPhD of New York University:

Next Sunday Germany‚Äôs first female Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is up for re-election. Approaching election day, the polls indicated a tight race between two coalitions: first, a possible center-right coalition of Christian Democrats (CDU) and Free-Democrats (FDP) and, second, the left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPD), Greens, and, if accepted by the SPD, The Left (see “here”:http://www.spiegel.de/flash/flash-21034.html for a collection of most recent polls in English). After four years of a grand coalition between the CDU and SPD, facing the worst economic crisis in the history of democratic Germany, and earning criticism from all sides of the political spectrum, election outcomes were said to be more uncertain than ever before.

For years now many political scientists and journalists in Germany have interpreted the decreasing vote share of the two biggest parties, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, and the increasing amount of swing voters and people splitting votes, as the establishment of a very fluid five party system (see Niedermeyer 2003) in which voters tend to travel within and between ideological camps and in which parties should follow this movement by experimenting with a larger set of possible coalitions across borders of ideological segregation (see for example “here”:http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/0,1518,644503,00.html for an essayistic summary of this point in German). In 2009, those trends may continue. Recent results from state-legislature elections saw the Christian Democrats loosing their absolute majority in Thuringia and Saarland. But rather than favoring the SPD, the losses empowered The Left and the Free Democrats. Polls also show that 40 per cent of voters are still undecided, a number that has not been reached so near to election day since 1949.

The question to be answered next Sunday is if we will indeed see another push towards indistinguishable ideological camps making voters even more indifferent, and discouraging them from making a clear decision for a new government made up by one ideological camp and led by one strong party? Taken to an extreme, will it be the case that, at some future point, all relevant parties are fully similar and voters are simply tossing a coin? Is it really true that there are no identifiable ideological blocks up in this election?

Let us go back to the 2005 election and look at voters’ perception of each party’s policy position. The graph below shows party positions on a left-right dimensions, derived by aggregating answers to a public opinion poll.


In this particular year, we see that only the two (then incumbent) parties, the Social Democrats and the Green party, were almost indistinguishable, but that a majority of survey respondents saw a difference between the SPD and CDU, with some overlap but still most of the time different. Furthermore, The Left (PDS at that time) clearly was perceived as a choice at the absolute left and FDP as one closely connected to the center-right camp. The grand coalition might have added diffusion about differences between the two big players by moving SPD and CDU closer together.


But if we now look at a similar graph for the year 2009 (above), we see that voters still perceive a difference between the CDU and SPD even after four years of shared government responsibility. The Left, however, gained in large numbers whereas the SPD lost in numerous state or local elections. Directly comparing how voter’s perceive the position of SPD and the Left on the major ideological dimension in this graph demonstrates that the Left, in the voter’s eyes, has made it’s way slightly further to the right occupying more and more space on the left side of the political spectrum. If we believe spatial theory saying that voters go for the party ideologically close to them, the Left is a good candidate to gain more from the losses of the SPD on next Sunday.

What does this mean for the upcoming election? As indicated by recent polls, it is less about the CDU losing or winning the election. They still score highest with around 35 per cent of the vote. It will be more about how far the SPD was able to really distinguish itself from their current coalition partner in the final weeks of their campaign so as not to lose more voters to the more leftist camp. If the recently more aggressive campaign by SPD leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier turns out to be successful, Germany might end up in another round of a grand coalition. If not, if the lack of a clear and differentiable ideological label for the SPD strikes, we will see a CDU-FDP coalition since the Left and the Greens will take away social-democratic votes. Ideology is not dead, not every coalition is possible, not every political experiment rewarded. The Social Democrats were punished for being open to experiments, trying to cover a broad ideological range, and not making their label clear enough to voters. The SPD failed in establishing itself as the leader of the ideological left.

[Note: This is updated from the original post, which inadvertently omitted the last two paragraphs. Sorry!]