For a period of a couple of months towards the end of last year it seemed as though the populist wave had finally reached Germany, Europe’s long-standing centrist bulwark. The two main parties, Angela Merkel’s centre-right CDU/CSU and her coalition partner the centre-left SPD, experienced a sustained erosion of support bottoming out at a combined voting share of around 40%. The Greens and the populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) surged in the polls to within almost 5% of the coalition partners, complementing the picture of the centre being under attack. Yet, this characterisation was always too simplistic, the polling reflected the unpopularity of a government struggling with infighting, and with the Greens not really fitting the bill of an anti-establishment party. Merkel’s managed transition out of power has reversed the trend and taken the sting out of the AfD for now. The European elections are now a key litmus test for the trajectories for each of the political parties.
Alternative für Deutschland (AfD)
Angela Merkel’s handover of the CDU chairmanship and a slip in the polls from around 17 to 13 per cent since the start of the year has deflated the party after a surging 2018. European elections and regional elections in Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia provide a last chance to turn electoral fortunes around before a barren period in Germany where citizens will not head to the polls again before 2021.
The opportunities for an AfD comeback this year are clear. European elections with its low voter turnout usually favour fringe parties, and the states of Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia are all situated in former East Germany, where support for the party is strongest. Yet, it won’t be an easy ride for the German populist party. Its Eurosceptic profile is not nearly as well developed as its populist counterparts in neighbouring countries, which it is seeking to address by now calling for Germany to leave the EU. Whether this will gain traction is not clear, the German electorate is strongly pro-European and anti-EU sentiments have in the past only been linked to specific issues such as the Eurozone and migration crises, both of which are significantly less salient than in the past. The party also has to come to terms with the fact that a key aspect of its identity – its fervent anti-Merkel stance – has been crucially undermined by the Chancellor’s managed transition out of power. The AfD will loom large during European elections as every party from the conservative CSU to the Greens is rallying voters by stressing the EU’s nature as bulwark against nationalism in Europe.
Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD)
The European elections 2019 will be a Schicksalswahlfor Germany’s social democratic party. Over the last fifteen years the SPD has been on a dramatic downwards trajectory that has seen it fall temporarily to fourth position in the polls at only 13% of the vote, a traumatic development for Germany’s largest party in terms of membership base. To make matters worse, the long-time junior coalition partner, the Green Party, has overtaken the SPD and is now polling consistently at around 20%, around five percentage points ahead of the social democrats.
The SPD’s unpopular leader Andrea Nahles has only been in position since April 2018, yet her inability to provide new impulses or counter the party’s downward trajectory in the polls pitches the election into a last chance for her to prove her credentials.
Poor polling has shaped expectations for only 15-20 MEPs to win seats in Brussels, a sharp decline that has necessitated painful decisions by the party. With directions by Nahles for younger and more feminine faces, some senior social democrats look like they will struggle to return to Brussels. With each percentage point at the polls translating to roughly an extra MEP, Evelyne Gebhart and Peter Simon look destined to fall short on place 25 and 28 on the party list. Between Gebhardt’s role as Digital Single Market Rapporteur and Simon’s work in shaping the European Parliament’s anti-tax avoidance and capital requirements rules, the party is now set to lose considerable policy expertise.
Die Union (CDU/CSU)
Angela Merkel’s centre right union CDU/CSU is entering the European elections in good shape. The party halted its slide in the polls last year with Merkel handing over the leadership of the party to fellow moderate Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. While Kramp-Karrenbauer only received a narrow win over fellow candidates in the leadership contest, the open race and debate over the party’s direction has rejuvenated the CDU’s public perception. Both politicians are broadly popular across the political spectrum in Germany and put the party in a good position to do well at the elections. While Merkel is expected to see out her mandate as chancellor until 2021, a poor showing by her party at the European and regional elections this year will likely move forward plans for a transfer of the Chancellery to Kramp-Karrenbauer.
The party alliance fields Manfred Weber as the lead candidate not only for the CDU/CSU but also as EPP candidate for the Commission President. Weber does not hold a high profile in Germany but the prospect of the first German Commission President since 1967, should be a powerful argument at the polling booth.
Die Grünen (Greens)
The Green Party is currently riding a wave of popular support in German polls, and European elections will be a first nation-wide test for the party after a successful showing at last year’s regional elections in Bavaria and Hesse. Headed up by the popular duo of Michael Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, the Greens are now Germany’s second most popular party at around 20%. A centrist policy programme with a centre-left and environmentalist slant, the party has established itself as an attractive option for voters from across a wide range of backgrounds. Successful participation in regional and national governments has further established the party’s credentials as a serious and responsible actor on the German political stage. The Greens now have to show that they are not only experiencing a temporary surge in polls but can consolidate their second place in German politics.
Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP)
During the 2017 national elections, the fortunes of the party which had struggled without parliamentary representation for four years, looked about to turn. A young and dynamic leader, Christian Lindner, had installed new confidence and an ambitious policy programme into a deflated party. A year later and after a contentious decision to exit coalition talks, the party is struggling to regain its previous swagger. While the Green Party and the AfD surged ahead in polls, the FDP failed to make any gains from the struggles of Germany’s two largest parties. The party will seek to harness some of the glamour of its European sister parties referencing Emmanuel Macron and Margrethe Vestager, and rely on an effective campaigning machine that delivered such a respectable result at last year’s national elections.