On Sunday, federal elections will determine Germany’s government for the next four years. Currently, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU Union is leading polls with slightly below 40%, the social democratic party SPD is trailing behind somewhere around 22%, and the other four parties are fighting to finish third, currently around 9% each.
After the French election in April and May and the United Kingdom’s election in June, September’s ballot will be the third election in a major European country this year. However, the populist threat—which most currently surfaced in the French and American elections, and earlier in the Brexit vote—is not considered as controversial as it was in the American and French elections. This is mostly due to the fact that the mainstream populist party in Germany, AfD, does not have a realistic chance of participating in the new government due to the coalition-based governance system. It can however be considered certain that the right-wingers will be part of the newly elected parliament, and as part of the opposition will have a major stage to advocate for their agenda.
In the upcoming elections, realistically the question will not be who will win, but by how much Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU Union will dominate the other parties. Since it is unlikely that CDU/CSU will secure a full 50% of the vote, the question of who the Union will govern with arises. Albeit none of the parties has so far made a statement on who they would like to govern with. Historically and realistically only the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Liberals (FDP) are in contention here. According to a recent poll by Civey, a black-and-red “grand” coalition is the least favorable to Germans, since a community of purpose between the two largest parties—making up 60% of all votes—will inhibit political discussion because the opposition will fall into insignificance. A coalition between CDU/CSU and FDP was in power from 2009 to 2013 and ended with the junior partner voted out of parliament, yet the two parties’ platforms show the most similarity when compared to other parties. Lastly, if the votes for a conservative-liberal coalition will not suffice, a so-called “Jamaica-coalition” is in discussion, which additionally would include the Greens. Strong differences of opinion between the Liberals and the Greens however would end in major discussions in the coalition talks and a rather cool climate in the governing coalition.
CDU: Campaigning with a “Silver Bullet” and an Accessible Campaign Platform
With chances for re-election being close to certain, Merkel’s party finds itself in no need to run an adventurous campaign. Reading through the Union’s platform conveys a cozy feeling of how well Germany is doing and how all of it can be attributed to Angela Merkel’s leadership. One can find very few answers to critical points, particularly ones that could in any way upset the party’s base. The campaign’s slogan “For a Germany in which we live good and pleasantly”—which was abbreviated into the official tongue-breaking hashtag #fedidwgugl—is at the center of all communication efforts, which were realized by the marketing-masterminds of Jung von Matt. According to experts, the campaign has been described as “brilliantly boring” since even the official layout screams “no shenanigans” and “let’s keep going.” Or, to explain it with the words of agency CEO Jean-Remy von Matt: “I have never advertised a product or a brand that was as superior to its competitors as Ms. Merkel.”
Despite all criticism about the lack of political content in its platform, Merkel’s party runs a state-of-the-art campaign. Besides the traditional poster approach, online audiences are targeted with a website on which visitors and celebrities can proclaim their support for the Chancellor. Additionally, two excellent features of the campaign stand out: First, an internal team produced an app called “Connect17” which uses a gamification-approach to door-to-door voter outreach and at the same time works as a GPS-canvassing tool to map out promising households that either need to be activated to go vote or need just a little convincing to vote for the conservatives. Brilliantly, this approach combines the traditional approach of “door-to-door” with new digital tools. Another pillar to the success of this project is the strong involvement of the CDU youth organization “Junge Union” which managed to create a lifestyle atmosphere around their volunteers.
The second part of the campaign worth mentioning is the #fedidwgugl-house, a former department store in the heart of Berlin which serves as an accessible party platform and creatively realizes the party’s manifesto on multiple floors. Again, the content does not aim to convince the voter, but the feelings surrounding it, as much as the character of the event.
Schulz: “Assault on democracy”
During the kickoff of their campaign in June, Social-Democratic candidate Martin Schulz strongly attacked Merkel’s style of avoiding content in campaigning and called it an “assault on democracy.” Unlike the Conservatives, the Social Democrats provide quite a number of proposals in their platform— starting with tax and entitlement reform— as well as the introduction of a re-qualification program as part of unemployment benefits, and a strong line against the illegal activities of the automobile industry. Schulz, former President of the European Parliament and an outsider to German national politics, became candidate and SPD leader when his predecessor and former Minister of Economics and Energy, Sigmar Gabriel, stepped aside to become Minister of Foreign Affairs. The position became available when the former Minister and SPD candidate in the 2009 election, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, gave up his position to become Federal President.
When Schulz was confirmed to be the social democrats’ candidate and elected party leader, the party found itself in ecstasy, with a polling high of 32%. The “Schulz-Hype” however eventually slowed down and the party is back to where it was before the unexpected boost, currently in danger of ending with the worst result in their long history. The Social Democrats run a standard campaign without any major flaws, but at the same time without any outstanding elements. The leading topics of justice, future, and Europe do not seem to resonate strongly enough with the unpersuaded voters of “the middle.” In the polls, the party has not recovered from the drop after its high at the beginning of the year and with Merkel’s pressing superiority, the TV debate on September 3rd was the only chance for a direct confrontation. Due mostly to the chancellor’s untouchability—not for a lack of trying— Schulz’ many attacks did not spark a tipping point in the polls.
Strong Comeback of the Liberals
After being voted out of Parliament in the last federal election in 2013, the Liberals used their involuntary absence from the nation’s political stage to consolidate around their charismatic new leader Christian Lindner. They are using their strong expertise in economic policy to present solutions to pressing future topics like digitalization, startups, and even education, while at the same time running a state-of-the-art campaign with colorful visuals and innovative ways of approaching specifically young voters. Their comeback to the Parliament is almost certain and the junior-partnership in government is becoming ever more likely. Highlights of their campaign so far have been their official TV spot, large-scale posters that featured their entire platform word by word, and the highly authentic video-snippets from the party leader released every Monday. Unlike their possible coalition partner’s campaigns, the liberal’s campaign shouts new approaches and restart from every rooftop.
Greens, Die Linke and AfD thus far Colorless
The Green Party is running a rather unexciting campaign, focusing on their main area of expertise of sustainability and environmentalism. Worth mentioning is only their unconventional TV spot. Yet, the party suffers from Merkel’s decisions to phase out nuclear power and to start Germany’s energy transition, essentially coopting the core of the Green’s platform. The Greens have not yet managed to properly use the recent scandals in the auto industry politically.
The successor of GDR’s ruling party SED— DIE LINKE— is running a standard campaign to put in place socialist redistributive policies and promises to restore social justice. It is clearly noticeable that the party suffers from losing Gregor Gysi, their rhetorically brilliant former faction leader, who decided to adopt a lower public profile and dropped his party office. Without him, DIE LINKE suffers from a lack of public visibility, yet a 10 to 11 percent voting outcome becomes likely, since they seem to be trusted more with social issues and injustice than the moderate Social Democrats.
Lastly, the right-wing populists of AfD are still preoccupied with cleaning up the aftermath of their internal battles, which resulted in party leader Frauke Petry not being considered as one of the main candidates for the federal election. Moreover, the moderate forces see themselves facing a growing number of anticonstitutional nationalists within their party. With the influx of refugees slowing down, the party is losing their raison d’être. In some polls however, the populists are projected to be reaching 10% or more.
Trends in German Campaigning
When comparing the parties’ campaigns, a few trends stand out. Most importantly, personalization in politics has now reached Germany. The three most relevant campaigns all consolidate around their respective leader and try their best to tailor formats and content toward their leader’s personality. Even if Chancellor Merkel continues reminding the public that their vote is for a party, not the leading candidate (mostly to dodge another TV debate with competitor Schulz), personalization seems to be a recipe for success. It is apparent that the three parties that presented their leading candidates as a duo (Greens, DIE LINKE and AfD) are not publicly perceived as strong.
Digital campaigning has not become as important as it was described beforehand. Admittedly all parties run online campaigns and invest substantial funds to buy social media advertising and create engaging content. The fact however that the most impactful campaign (CDU) uses digital strategies only as a complement to their offline strategy shows that all parties haven’t yet picked up on the effect of online campaigns, or that this type of campaigning just is not relevant for Germany. Future elections will bring more clarity in that regard.
Non-voter activation seems to have become the new big deal. In the state election of North Rhine-Westphalia for instance, the Conservatives managed to activate 800,000 former non-voters, which played a huge role in them winning back the state from the Social Democrats. It seems reasonable that with the help of their new silver bullet “Connect 17” they will be able to recreate this phenomenon in the federal election.
What Sunday Will Bring
Angela Merkel is likely to be in office for a fourth term, which would allow her to overtake the first post-war Chancellor and party founder Konrad Adenauer, who himself was in office for 14 years, and to catch up with Helmut Kohl, who was also a four-term Chancellor. After the election, the question of the new governing coalition will be most relevant. Albeit most Germans wouldn’t gladly approve of another grand coalition. Such a prospect would be the worst of all scenarios, and may be boring on the one hand, but on the other hand a strong sign of stability in the heart of Europe.