The 2019 European Elections produced historically poor results for both the centrist mainstays of German politics, the Christian Democratic Union (22.6% down from 30.0%) and the Social Democrats (15.8% down from 27.3%). Contrary to the wider narrative of the populist surge, the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) only moderately benefited (11.0% up from 7.1%) from this voter migration. The key winner of 27 May was the Green Party which achieved the second-best result in the country, nearly doubling its 2014 result. The election reflected a renewed interest in politics with voter turnout significantly higher, at 61.4% from 48.1% in 2014. Voters have also shown themselves to be to be more open to new alternatives with smaller parties (most of which are in fact centrist) up across the board. Of these new parties however only the new pan-European movement Volt obtained a seat in the European Parliament.
The fall of Andrea Nahles - the end of the Grand Coalition?
The heaviest repercussions have been felt in the Willy-Brandt House where the Social Democratic Party (SPD) had to come to terms with a halving of its vote. Andrea Nahles, the leader of the party, attempted to shore up her support with an internal confidence vote but decided to resign from all political positions after a sustained wave of criticism within the party. The strength of critique within the party was such a shock to Berlin insiders that there was broad cross-party condemnation of the way it was delivered. The party will now be taken over by a triumvirate of interim leaders until a long-term replacement is found. The next steps will be discussed at the upcoming party leadership meeting on 24 June. While it is now increasingly doubtful that the Grand Coalition will last the full term, it is expected that the SPD will first seek to find new leadership before it makes a decision on whether to withdraw.
Is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer fit to run the CDU?
The CDU has returned a historically poor result in the midst of the transition of power from Angela Merkel to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who has already taken on the party leadership. The result is the latest in a series of developments that have cast doubts over Kramp-Karrenbauer’s ability to lead the party. While she has gained plaudits for her efforts to engage the party base and sharpen the socially conservative profile of the party this has led to the CDU shedding moderate voters to the Green Party. Kramp-Karrenbauer has seemed tone-deaf when confronted with critique whether regarding a politically incorrect joke or the party’s track record in government. The latter became a minor political scandal when she seemed to contemplate regulating the expression of political commentary on social media. The continued weakness in polling has called into question her ability to lead the party but a self-critical reflection at the latest party leadership meeting has shored up support within the CDU for now. Given current polling, the CDU is seeking to avoid early elections and has drafted a letter to the SPD appealing to their duty to keep the Grand Coalition alive.
The main challenger to the CDU - the Green Party
The Greens have been the clear winners of the 2019 European Elections in Germany and are consolidating their status as the main challenger to the CDU/CSU for the chancellorship. The party’s ascending trajectory has continued after the 2019 European Elections with the party coming first in a national poll for the first time ever at the start of June (ahead of the combined CDU/CSU). In contrast to the green parties in other EU member states, the Green Party is not a fringe party but has extensive experience in governing at both regional and national level. The party has for instance been governing one of the most prosperous regions in Germany, the state of Baden-Württemberg since 2011, in what was once the deep CDU heartland. It was also the junior partner for the SPD at national level under the last social democratic chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The strength of the party reflects more than the weakness of the CDU and SPD. Environmental protection is now the number one concern for German voters, ahead of social security and peace. In fact, despite the strong showing in the European Elections the Green Party will also be joined by two other ecologically minded parties (Partei Mensch Umwelt Tierschutz and Ökologisch-Demokratische Partei) in the new European Parliament who retained a seat each. The Greens also have a recognisable and charismatic face in former author Robert Habeck. Nonetheless the party will have its work cut out if either the CDU or SPD begins to make inroads again.
What about the rest?
A key focus of observers from abroad has been the performance of the populist AfD, yet despite gains and a result in the double digits (10.5%), the party obtained disappointing results. The leadership had communicated a target of 15-20%. In fact, it performed 2.5% percentage points worse than during the last general elections in 2017. In the context of historically poor results from the main parties, this has been a particularly poor showing. The strategy of closely allying themselves to the Austria’s FPO backfired due their implication in a major scandal just days before the election. The liberal FDP improved on its 2014 result but at 5.4% is far below expectations in the current political environment. Amongst the smaller parties it was the satirical party (die Partei) that most outperformed expectations. It returned two seats and 2.4% of the vote, with support strongest from first-time voters with whom it was the third most popular party. The party had surprising success in making the case for the politically disillusioned to not abandon the election while positioning themselves strongly against populism.