German Election Analysis: left parties struggle against centrism of Angela Merkel

Polls show that Angela Merkel is favourite to win the German Federal Election. The left is struggling to gain ground against Merkel's pragmatic centrism.

Calum Young is studying for a masters in European Law at the University of Leiden, having previously studied both Law and German.

Angela Merkel is frequently portrayed in non-German media as an unrelenting ideologue hell-bent on enforcing right-wing austerity policies across Europe. However, her continued popularity in Germany is a reflection of a different Angela Merkel: a relentless pragmatist willing to work with both sides of the political spectrum.  It is this flexibility which, under her leadership, has left the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) as the party to beat in the upcoming federal elections on the 22nd September.

Merkel’s tendency for centrism is longstanding. In her first term as chancellor, she governed in a ‘grand coalition’ with the Social Democrats (SDP). This involved a great deal of negotiation and co-operation, as both parties held many different positions, but were of roughly similar size, making it  difficult for either one to claim a greater mandate from the electorate. Nonetheless, the coalition lasted its full term, a testament to both sides’ willingness to co-operate.

With the polls hinting towards another potential grand coalition this pragmatic centrism may serve Merkel well again in the future. Indeed, her electoral positioning during the previous 8 months has both created common ground between her and the opposition whilst at the same time making it harder for them to conduct their election campaign.

Since the beginning of the year, the CDU has co-opted a number of left-wing positions, even in the face of previous opposition merely months before. These include a federal minimum wage, as well as promising to take action against rising rents. These ideas are all relatively popular with the German population, and so have helped boost the CDU’s poll ratings. European policy is another area on which there is broad agreement, with the SDP voting with the government on bailouts to Greece and other countries. Yet on top of these broad policy agreements, Merkel and the CDU have also announced new childcare initiatives designed to please the conservative voters of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), potentially at the expense of more left-wing support.

It is this delicate but carefully managed balancing act that has led to the commanding position the CDU holds less than a month before the election. What would have been key rallying points for Social Democrat voters are now broadly agreed-upon compromise points. Whilst this is certainly good news for advocates for these issues, it does make it significantly harder to form a clear-cutting opposition position. The SDP candidate for Chancellor, Peer Steinbrück is reduced to merely claiming the SDP were the originators of these ideas – hardly a strong campaigning slogan. Yet in spite of this, and the SDP’s relative unpopularity (around 24%) Steinbrück has rejected the idea of a grand coalition with Merkel in charge.

The CDU’s centrist positioning means they could potentially form a coalition with either the SDP or continue with the present coalition with the Free Democratic Party (FDP), should they receive more than the 5% of the vote required to gain seats in the Bundestag.  The two biggest ‘seatless’ parties, the Pirate Party and the new eurosceptic ‘Alternative for Germany’ seem unlikely to make an impact on the election beyond taking a percentage of votes from the FDP.

Things look considerably less appealing for the SDP and their preferred coalition partners the Greens. The two parties’ polling averages combined are generally less than that of the CDU, before the potential support of the FDP is added. Any left-wing ‘anti-Merkel’ coalition would most likely have to be the fractious ‘Red-red-green’ combination of the SDP, The Greens, and the socialist party The Left. This idea has also been ‘scornfully’ rejected by Steinbrück, leaving the SPD relying on a mathematically unlikely Red-Green coalition, or going back on previous statements.

More and more, Merkel’s centrism looks to be one of the dominant factors in the formation of government in approximately a month’s time. It has both fairly successfully neutralised the most prominent campaign issues of the main opposition party, as well as leaving the two most likely coalition options on the table. Short of an unlikely confluence of FDP failure and three radically different left-wing parties both outperforming current polls as well as solving their mutual differences, this centrist position will ensure Angela Merkel remains the chancellor come election day. Other than certain individuals mysteriously finding their way onto planes, everything seems to be going to plan for the CDU.

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