What Will Happen in Germany After the European Elections?

Political Berlin has been brimming with rumors about what will happen to the German federal government after the upcoming elections to the European Parliament, the Bremen state legislature and municipal elections in nine German states this coming Sunday, May 26. In this post, I will outline some of the conditions under which parties in Germany are currently operating. Connecting these conditions, I will then come up with some thoughts about what will happen next.

The CDU is facing a problem ever since Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (aka AKK) took over from Angela Merkel as the party leader, but not as the chancellor, in December 2018. Historically, the two roles have mostly been held by the same person whenever the CDU was in power. Dividing party leadership and chancellorship diminishes the role of either, especially in a political system where parties matter as much as in the German case. This is condition number 1 – the CDU has a strong incentive to unify the roles of party leader and chancellor, which right now means electing AKK chancellor. The CDU also has a strong incentive to unify party leadership and chancellorship quickly because AKK is trailing in the polls – her party leadership is viewed less enthusiastically than the party had hoped back in December.

The SPD is in abysmal shape electorally and their plight is likely to become only harder. In the latest poll for the European Elections, the SPD, at 17 percent, is trailing the CDU by 13 percentage points, coming in third after the Greens (19 percent). This predicted 10 percentage point loss compared to the last EP elections would be a disastrous result for the Social Democrats, especially after they have been campaigning hard and with the prominent and popular German Minister of Justice, Katarina Barley, as their lead candidate.

Maybe more importantly, and even worse for the SPD, recent polls have the party now lose their plurality in the state legislature of Bremen to the CDU. The SPD has ruled Bremen ever since 1945 and regards the state as their home turf. A loss there would likely send shock waves through the party. This is condition 2 – the SPD is likely to face defeat in the elections to the EP, the Bremen state legislature, or both.

Such a situation with an extremely nervous SPD would present the CDU with an excellent opportunity to solve their problem outlined in condition 1. Either the SPD pulls out of the federal government and there is a new coalition without new elections that brings AKK into the chancellery. This would require CDU, Greens and FDP to overcome their differences that has precluded them from forming a coalition back in 2017. The FDP has signaled that this time around they might be willing to become part of the federal government.

Alternatively, the CDU could use the situation to force the hand of the SPD. This is how it would work: Angela Merkel could step down as the Chancellor, suggesting AKK as her successor to the Federal President. The President would then suggest AKK as the new Chancellor to the federal parliament, in accordance with Art. 63 of the Federal Constitution. The SPD has frequently said that they would not vote for AKK and rather leave the government. The CDU could then either form a new coalition, form a minority government or call for new elections, following the procedures outlined in Art. 63, 4 of the constitution.

But it all comes down to how nervous the SPD really gets. Because here is the tricky part: Any new chancellor that is elected by the Bundestag would likely call early elections to add legitimacy to the change in chancellorship. Given their polling results for elections to the Bundestag, a rational SPD cannot want federal elections any time soon. Rather, the rational course of action for the Social Democrats would be to wait out their term and hope for the best in the 2021 elections. But judging by the many dissenting voices in a party that is known for its unruly functionaries and membership, rationality may not be the virtue to prevail after a devastating showing in the upcoming state and EP elections.

This is why my prediction is that Germany will hold federal elections before the regularly scheduled date in the fall of 2021, possibly as soon as September this year. The outcome of such early elections would then probably see a renewal of a CDU-led government.

Spatially speaking, the SPD performed better than expected in the 2017 German Federal Elections, while the CDU did worse. And the AfD is the least-liked party of them all

There is a long political science tradition of modeling voting decisions as based on which party a voter is “closest” to in a policy space. This space can, in principle, be of any dimensionality; for both theoretical and empirical work, the assumption of a two-dimensional policy space is frequently used.

Voting in such a framework is simple – voters calculate the distances between their own ideal point in the policy space and the positions of all parties competing for votes. They then vote for the party that is closest to their ideal point. There is no consideration of e.g. how likable a candidate is or whether a voter feels particularly attached to a specific party. All that matters is distance. In addition, voters’ preferences (their ideal points) are fixed and exogenously given and there is no abstention.

We can use this model to gauge which parties over- or underperformed in the 2017 German Federal elections, given their policy stances and given the stated preferences of voters. For voter’s ideal points, we turn to the GLES post election survey data and use the questions on  preferences over taxation and immigration to measure the ideal point of a voter on an economic and a societal dimension, respectively. For parties’ positions on the same two dimensions we use data from the Chapel Hill expert survey. Here is what this looks like:

Political parties are positioned around the center of the distributions on the two dimensions. Warmer colors denote that more voters with those preferences can be found in these regions of the policy space, while the dark blue color that can be found towards the extremes of the distributions indicate that there are few voters whose ideal points are located there.

Some parties, like the CDU/CSU and the SPD, are closer to where the bulk of voters are, while others like the FDP, the AfD, the Left party and the Greens, position themselves more to the edges. How should these positions translate into votes? If we assume voting based solely on minimum-distance considerations, the SPD should have gotten a mere 14.3 percent of the votes instead of the 20.5 percent it actually received. In contrast to this over-performance, the CDU/CSU should have received 39.1 percent of the votes instead of the 33 percent it ended up with. The table shows these numbers for all the parties currently in the German Bundestag

Party Expected Minimum Distance Vote Share Actual Vote Share Difference
CDU/CSU 39.5 33 -6.5
SPD 14.3 20.5 6.2
GREENS 9.8 8.9 -0.9
LEFT 7.9 9.2 1.3
FDP 9.9 10.7 0.8
AFD 18.5 12.6 -5.9

While the Greens, the Left party and the FDP performed about as predicted by a minimum-distance model, the AfD performed much worse than minimum-distance considerations would suggest.  One of the reasons for the discrepancy between predicted support and electoral performance might be the likability of parties. The GLES data contain information on how voters view parties. Respondents are asked to voice their opinion on parties by using an 11 point scale with a range from -5 to +5 where -5 stands for “I don’t think anything of this party at all” and +5 denotes “I think very highly of this party”. This question goes beyond mere distances in a policy space. It also covers emotional and longer-term attachment to political parties. 

Using this measure, we find that the AfD is the least liked party with an average value of 2.77 on the -5 to +5 scale. A full 60 percent of voters chose the worst possible judgment for the AfD. By comparison, the SPD has a mean favorability value of 7.4. However, we find an almost identical number for the CDU. Even considering the somewhat lower values for the CSU, the favorability rating cannot explain why the CDU/CSU underperformed their minimum-distance spatial expectations.

Maybe, then, it was all about the candidates? Comparing the favorability ratings of Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-candidate for the Chancellory Martin Schulz of the SPD, we find that the difference between Schulz and Merkel is about 1.25 in Merkel’s favor. In other words: If Merkel had been seen as unfavorably as Schulz, the CDU/CSU would have done even worse. On the other hand, a candidate Schulz with Merkel’s favorability rating would have outperformed the SPD’s spatial forecast by an even wider margin.

Looking ahead, these findings are good news for the CDU and not so good news for the SPD. With the SPD already outperforming their levels of support suggested by a spatial perspective, it is not clear how the party could increase their vote share, especially not if the SPD moved to a position further to the left. For the CDU, the party’s longtime strategy of steering a calm course could just be what is needed to bring voters back who should have voted for the party based on their preferences, but didn’t do so in the 2017 elections. In any event, neither party stands to gain from moving further to the extremes.

Political Parties Take Notice: The German Electorate is Centrist Through and Through

Germany is usually not known for its overly exciting domestic politics. Recently though, things have gotten more interesting. As will be recalled, the German Bundestag took an unusually long time to elect a new chancellor.  Then, there was the summer drama over migration that brought the recently formed coalition to the brink of collapse.

Now, Germany’s established political parties are trying to react to their dwindling electoral support. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement to step down as a party leader has sparked a battle over the CDU leadership as well as over the party’s future direction.  Andrea Nahles, chairwoman of the social democratic SPD,  has disowned the party’s own successful labor market reforms in an attempt to play to a more left-wing base.

From an electoral perspective, which strategy is likely to prove more successful? As we have noted before, the CDU’s supporters are thoroughly centrist. This does not bode well for either Friedrich Merz or Jens Spahn, two hopefuls for the CDU’s chairmanship. If anyone can benefit from these centrist preferences, it should be Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the pragmatist champion of those party members who are still supporting Angela Merkel.

The same is true for the electorate as a whole. Using data from the GLES 2017 post-election study, we looked at respondents’ preferences over policies on two dimensions. The first dimension is an economic dimension and conforms to a standard notion of “left” vs. “right” politics with respect to taxes, redistribution and the role of government in the economy. The other dimension is a societal or “new politics” dimension that captures preferences over authority vs. liberty, marriage equality, abortion and multiculturalism. Higher values denote more conservative or right-wing preferences.


The figure shows the (representative) distribution of German respondents’ preferences on these two dimensions together with the 2017 positions of political parties, based on data from the Chapel Hill expert survey. On an economic dimension, the bulk of voters holds preferences that are smack in the middle between “left” and “right” economic policies. On a societal dimension, more conservatives positions, gauged by surveying preferences on immigration laws, are slightly favored over more liberal policies.

It is hard to see how a party strategy of becoming more extreme could be electorally beneficial under these circumstances. Especially the SPD would be ill-advised to move to the left on either an economic or a societal dimension. Not only are potential voters thinning out in these areas of the policy space, there are also two competitors – the Greens and the Left party – that are already firmly established in the respective corners. For the CDU, the dangers lie in alienating the bulk of voters in the center of the distribution. By moving to the right, the CDU might lose more than what they have to gain by adopting more conservative positions, especially if these positions were to resemble those of the AfD.

It remains to be seen if politics in Germany revert to their old less-than-exciting but thoroughly successful ways or if Germany is facing a period of self-inflicted political turmoil with parties veering off to the extremes. Voters, for one, would resoundingly prefer the former.

Where should the CDU look for a new leader? Smack in the middle!

The German CDU needs a new party leader after Chancellor Angela Merkel announced today that she will step down come December. Even before the announcement was official, names were floated in Berlin and beyond. Friedrich Merz, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Jens Spahn have thrown their hat in the ring. Count on more candidates to step forward, while others may well withdraw. After all, the CDU has a strong tradition of sorting out these kind of things in backroom deals rather than drawing them out in broad daylight (looking at you, SPD!)

But where should the party look for a replacement for Ms. Merkel? One way to think about this is in terms of the political preferences of the party’s supporters. The below figure shows the distribution of preferences of those respondents to a 2017 post-election survey who said that they feel a particular strong attachment to the CDU. In other words, these are CDU partisans. Note that this group is more narrowly defined than that of CDU voters and that not every CDU partisan is necessarily a CDU voter at every election. The data come from the German Longitudinal Election Study.

Turns out CDU partisans are about as centrist as can be. And while an argument could be made that a party leader should be a person that pulls or pushes the party into a new direction, the political reality of mass parties suggests that a successful leader is a moderator rather than an innovator.

Who, then, is the most centrist of the three candidates that are known so far? Clearly, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Friedrich Merz is too conservative on both a societal and and an economic dimension. Jens Spahn, on the other hand, has mainly positioned himself as a conservative critic on the societal dimension. Both candidates should not be able to trump the centrist Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, especially not if they are both upholding their candidacies, thus drawing on the same support base. Let’s wait till early December when the party has to make its final decision.


Where Did the German AfD Benefit the Most From Increased Turnout? Surprise: It’s Not the East

We took another look at the results from Germany’s federal parliamentary elections that took place on September 24th. The right-wing authoritarian party “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD) massively increased their electoral support and became the third largest group in the Bundestag.

While it was apparent immediately after the elections that the AfD’s largest voting block was former non-voters (see e.g. https://wahl.tagesschau.de/wahlen/2017-09-24-BT-DE/analyse-wanderung.shtml), the variation in this relation is less clear.

We were interested in where the AdF benefited the most from increased turnout and created the map below. The shading shows the ratio of turnout change to AfD vote share. In other words, it shows the degree to which the AfD was able to turn an increase in turnout into votes. Click on the map to see details about the districts.

Click on the shaded areas to see district detail.

It turns out that the districts where the AfD benefitted the most from increased turnout are almost exclusively located in Bavaria. By contrast, in the Eastern states, where the AfD generally won much higher vote shares than in Bavaria, the ratio of turnout change to AfD vote is much lower.

In our view, political parties would be well advised to take a close look at these results. The districts in Bavaria where the turnout-to-AfD ratio was highest are certainly not economically distressed. Unemployment is low and household incomes tend to be above average. It is here that the AfD was able to mobilize with their message of national identity and xenophobia. The party was able to speak to voters who had been alienated from the party system and chose to abstain in previous elections. Against this backdrop, it will be interesting to see how the conservatives in Bavaria, chancellor Merkel’s sister party CSU, will handle the state elections that are scheduled to take place in Fall 2018.