Analyse the party political situation in Germany after the General Election of 27 September 1998

11 December 1998

The Federal Elections of 1998 - An Overview

The 1998 General Election was an election of superlatives. For the first time, every previously ruling party had been thrown out of office by the electorate. For the first time, a majority of the electorate voted for parties of the Left. A record 5 parties crossed the 5% hurdle. A record of almost 50 million voters took part in the elections. The Greens entered Federal Government for the first time, while the FDP left Federal Government for the first time in 19 years. The CDU plunged to its worst result since 1949. In this essay I will first take an overview of the 1998 results, particularly focusing on the differences between East and West. I will then assess each of the main parties, before drawing conclusions as to how the German party system is likely to develop.

Beyond the superlatives, the 1998 election also confirmed that in many senses unification remains only skin deep. While the SPD and CDU have substantial mandates on both sides of the former iron curtain, politicians in the new Länder have different priorities and expectations that those in the West. The minor parties are even more rigidly defined along East-West lines. After a false dawn in 1990, the FDP have disappeared as an electoral force in the East. While the Greens are fairly strong in East Berlin and put in passable performances in some other major Eastern cities, they too are virtually non-existent over large swathes of the East. On the other hand the former GDR state party, now renamed the PDS, has its electoral support heavily concentrated in the East.

Most German commentators now refer to two co-existing party systems; a four party system in the West and a three party system in the East. However, in some senses the gap between Eastern and Western voting patterns has narrowed. The reverse-class pattern of the Volkskammer and 1990 Bundestag elections in the East has disappeared.

While the two main parties, and to a lesser extent the Greens, have secured their position in the party system, the PDS could be knocked out of the Bundestag by a tiny swing, while if the FDP's run of poor performances at Land level continues, they too could see their position at Federal level jeopardised.

It is too early to tell if the elections of the 1990's have established a pattern for the Berlin republic, or whether they mark a transition phase towards a three party system of SDP, CDU-CSU and Greens.

The SPD, Success - and Worries

The 1998 election has been seen as an unmitigated triumph for the SPD, as it out-polled the CDU for only the second time. With an SDP led government as well as an SPD led Bundesrat, an SPD head of the judiciary, 11 state heads out of 16 - as well the likelihood of an SPD President and SPD head of the Bundesbank inside the next year, it seems to many that Germany has been painted red.

The SPD polled well in both old and new Länder. It captured the lead among the Eastern working class for the first time. In the West it made substantial gains from both CDU and Greens. In the key state of Northrine-Westphalia, it finally managed to turn support at Land level into success at the Federal level, capturing Catholic industrial cities like Krefeld, Mönchengladbach and Aachen for the first time.

However, despite it's electoral success, the SPD must face a number of difficulties. It remains divided between the old industrial working-class and the 'trendy lefty' new middle-class. Further the open "individualism and élitism" which has characterised the party leadership since the departure of the old triumverate of Brandt, Schmidt and Wehener remains. These internal problems have been highlighted by the post-election spats between Hombach, Scharping and Lafontaine. It is vital for the party that Lafontaine and Schröder remain on good terms. The SPD's election victory was due in no small measure to Schröder's ability to woo floating voters while "traditionalist" Lafontaine appealed to the working-class base.

The success or failure of Schröder's' government will above all be measured in how it handles the economy and tax. Early prognoses for the government are mixed. While 74% of voters wish to give the new government a chance, only 7% of voters wholeheartedly believe the government are on top of Germany's problems.

Despite this, short term prospects for the SPD seem bright. Poll ratings have remained buoyant, particularly in Hesse and Brandenburg, where the party defends power at the Land level next year. The Eastern electorate seems to have got over its alienation from the SPD, brought on by Lafontaine's lukewarm attitude to unification in 1990. The East, the birthplace of German social democracy, and more secular, more Protestant and more blue-collar than the West, should increasingly be fertile territory for the SPD; notwithstanding the challenge from the ex-Communists. In the West, without Kohl the CDU look rudderless and no serious threat to Schröder. However, the SPD cannot afford failure if it hopes to win the support of an increasingly consumerist German electorate in 2002.

The Union Parties - Life After Helmut?

In an election of superlatives, the CDU and CSU received more than their fair share - for the wrong reasons. Their worst election results since 1949, coupled with a few symbolic embarrassments like Chancellor Kohl losing his seat in Ludwigshafen, or being pushed into fourth place behind PDS and Greens in Berlin Central/Prenzlauer Berg, the constituency which contains the Reichstag.

Yet as recently as early 1997, political scientists could assert that, "the party with the fewest problems would appear to be the Christian Democrats." What went wrong?

Two competing theories seem to have emerged. Firstly, that the pubic were fed up with Kohl after 16 years. The more worrying thesis for the Union is, however, that a drift to the right on economics coupled with clashes with the Churches on issues such as Asylum, has alienated parts of the 'social-Christian' base of the CDU - the Gerechtigkeitslücke hypothesis. It should be noted that one theory does not preclude the other.

The CDU realises that it desperately needs to groom a new generation of leaders, in the knowledge that it may be in opposition for two terms. It must do this against the background of an ageing and declining membership. Dealignment means, as it does for the SPD, that the CDU can no longer rely on core groups such as Catholics, regular churchgoers in general and farmers to support them regardless of circumstance.

It also faces internal problems. While Wolfgang Schäuble enjoys high popularity ratings, he is reported to be isolated among the CDU élite. It is no secret that many, particularly the 'young Turks' of the party, wish to see Bavarian Prime Minister Stoibel made CDU-CSU Chancellor candidate for the next elections. This raises the damaging spectre of a potential return to the CDU - CSU squabbles of the late 1970's.

However, most worrying of all to the Union parties must be their lack of visibility since the election. The CDU has focused strongly on Helmut Kohl's personality in the last three federal elections, ironically in view of his pre-reunification image as a bungler. Now, with no Kohl, the CDU seems directionless.

As if this weren't enough, the CDU has seen the haemorrhage of its vote in the East, largely to SPD and PDS. In this year's elections, the CDU lost most votes in its old Eastern heartlands of Thuringia, and Saxony where it lost a massive 15% of the vote since 1994. While all parties, PDS obviously excepted, have had serious organisational problems in the East, the CDU's import of Wessis to fill elected office in the East, the CDU has more difficulties than most in cleaning up it's image in the East.

It is important, all the same, not to over-state the problems of the Union parties. They still have a core vote of around a third of the population, and a large number of political heavy hitters. Theo Waigel's warning of an "ÖVP-isation" of the CDU-CSU bloc is still far from being a serious prophesy. However, the CDU needs a new Berliner Programm to avoid a long wait on the opposition benches.

The Greens - Radicals Turned 'Tame and Toothless'?

Since the exit of the Fundis in 1991, the Greens seem to have stabilised as the clear third force in German politics. Red-Green coalitions are now commonplace at Land level. The big question now facing the Greens is whether or not they can make the compromises necessary to hold power at federal level while retaining the support of the party base. The three-piece-suited Foreign Minister of today cuts a very different dash from the 'Joschka' in trainers who was sworn in as the Greens very first minister eleven years ago.

Despite the fears of some on the Green left of a Schmusekurs which would destroy the Greens radicalism, experience at Land level indicates that the Schröder-Fischer government could have anything but a smooth ride. Ironically, while coalition negotiations were taking place in Bonn, one Green negotiator had to leave to sort out a breakdown between the SPD and Greens in the Northrhine-Westphalian government over the Garstweiler lignite mine issue.

If the Greens are serious about holding power, they cannot allow this coalition to fail. This however involves swallowing some very bitter pills - the deployment of German troops outside the NATO area as part of UN peacekeeping efforts was a violation of basic pacifist principles. Although left-wing Minister Jürgen Trittin managed to keep party tempers calm on that occasion, Green activists are still notoriously independently minded, consciously scoring a number of own goals at their pre-election conference at Magdeburg, and could yet cause trouble for the government.

Again, it is important not to over-emphasise the Green's problems. Coalition has brought the realisation of one long-standing Green dream - the date for Germany's abandonment of nuclear power. The party can also claim some credit towards the limited redistributionist steps the Schröder government has taken, and can claim a large measure of credit for the proposed reforms of citizenship law. The Greens have achievements to sell to their base.

The Greens, as an opposition party, have stabilised their core support: young, educated, urban and to large extent Western. They perform well among under-45s in the West, having retained many of those who first voted for them in the early 80's, and also among under-25s in the East. Now they must carry their support into government with them. Already the PDS is eyeing up the hard core of the Green vote as a potential entry point into the Western political market. Although terminally weak in large stretches of the East, the Greens seem to have a much more secure electoral base than the other small parties.

The FDP - Problems of Defintion

Of all the parties represented in the Bundestag, however, it is the position of the FDP that looks most vulnerable. Ironically, the FDP seemed to be the real beneficiaries of reunification in 1990. Although the party performed particularly well in the south-western part of the former GDR in 1990, much of it's membership was inherited from the old LDPD bloc party, and much of it's vote was due to the personal popularity of Genscher, born and bred in Halle. However, soon after the elections, Eastern membership began to fall dramatically.

After Genscher's departure, however, its sole campaign issue seemed to be that only a vote it could make sure the existing coalition continued in office - riding dangerously tightly on the coat tails of Helmut Kohl. The 1994 election "exposed unmercifully the fragility of the post-Genscher FDP, it's lack of rôle in the new Germany and its weak support, especially in the new Länder." With the exception of a 'blip' of good form in 1996, the FDP has had a string of disastrous results in Land elections since 1992. In the 1998 Bundestag campaign it did try and present a more independent line, selling itself as the only party capable of delivering the necessary reforms to resurrect Germany's economic competitiveness, returning to its market-liberal roots. It managed to return to the Bundestag in 1998, albeit with its second worst ever share of the vote, and for the second election in a row behind the Greens. It has now lost its ability to campaign as the "reliable coalition partner of the Christian Democrats".

The FDP now desperately needs to find a new niche for itself in German politics. However, it finds itself boxed in ideologically. The Greens have moved into the old social/civil liberties territory occupied by people such as Rudolf Augstein and Ralf Dahrendorf in the 1960's. The Union parties remain the parties of choice for the old middle-class. While the party would like to emulate the success of other northern European market-liberal parties such as the Dutch VVD, or the Flemish VLD, both its membership and its electorate would reject the position of those parties on key issues such as immigration. With long term structural problems such as a poor level of donations from members, the FDP faces an uncertain future.

Defying the Pundits - PDS After unification, it seemed that the PDS was doomed to rapid annihilation. Reduced to single figures in the East and virtually non-existent in the West, it seemed unlikely it could survive the 1994 elections. However, as with much to do with the former GDR, most commentators underestimated both the severity and duration of the recession in the East, and the effects it would have on German society.

The PDS has defied pundits twice in the past five years, firstly with their return to the Bundestag in 1994, and then by exceeding the 5% hurdle in 1998. The PDS has transformed itself into a regional party for Eastern Germany "an Ossi CSU" very successfully. Predicted to, literally, die out early in the decade, it has polled over 20% among young voters in both 1994 and 1998, while over 15% of it's members are under 30. Despite their small size, the PDS punch above their weight - causing chaos in both the SDP and CDU on occasions.

As noted above, however, the PDS' survival at Federal level is extremely marginal. On the other hand it now has a secure base of 15%-25% at Land level everywhere in the East. While PDS is a miniscule electoral force in the West, it would be wrong to assume from that that the West was unimportant to the PDS. 6 of the PDS' 36 MPs come from the West, as do over 15% of their voters.

While the PDS claim that the red-green coalition gives them a chance to win over leftist voters from both SPD and Greens, it is more likely their vote in the West will remain small. Their successes and failures in power in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern will be important in determining how far they will continue to succeed in their more significant rôle as the Eastern protest party. The PDS must be seen to deliver some concrete benefit for its electorate while avoiding being co-opted into the party system.

Still Isolated - The Far Right

Although the activities of the German far-right are always a subject of much debate, at home and abroad, the 1998 General Elections confirmed the far-right's inability to break through at Federal level, regardless of what happens at state and local level. The right, split between the Republicans, the DVU and the old NPD, managed a combined 3.2% of the vote. Regional strongholds were in small-town Saxony and Brandenburg as well as East Berlin, where ironically their best performance (7.9%) came in Berlin-Hellersdorf-Marzahn, the constituency of PDS leader Gregor Gysi.

A united and coherent far-right party could threaten to cross the 5% barrier, but given the German right's endemic factionalism in recent years this seems unlikely.

Conclusion - Continuity and Change

Given the speed at which change has taken place in Germany over the past decade, the stability of the party system is more remarkable than the changes wrought in it. While much will be revealed in next year's Land elections, it seems likely that the 1998 election was a pivotal election. Almost every state office is in the hands of the left, and the transfer of power to Berlin is a psychological move away from Adenauer's Rhineland towards the pre-war socialist heartlands of the East.

There has been much media speculation about the Berlin Republic, and whether it will differ from the Bonn Republic. Interestingly, pollster Elisabeth Nölle-Neumann, believes that the addition of 10 million new voters from the former GDR may tilt the balance of values in German society away from raw material prosperity and towards security and stability, favouring the left.53 Equally, there is no doubt that the CDU and CSU will play a vital rôle in German political life for the foreseeable future.

A number of questions remain in the balance, however:
1 Will the FDP manage to find a unique selling point, or is it now in terminal decline?
2 Whither the PDS? A number of futures seem possible - remaining as a regional party for the East, co-option by the SPD or expansion into the West.
3 Will voter turnout remain so high (over 80% for the first time since unification in 1998) if centrist politics continues to predominate, or will Parteienverdrossenheit return in full force to the benefit of the extremes?
4. How will the multiplicity of coalition options at Land level (the SPD is currently in coalition with all 4 other parties as well as being in single party government in various states) affect politics in the centre?

Party systems are always fluid. Therefore it is impossible to give an all embracing account of the direction and position of any democratic party system. However, the German Federal elections of 1998 have more claim than most to raise more questions than answers.


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