German voters deserve a more serious election campaign
Germany’s election on September 26th will herald a new era. Angela Merkel, chancellor for 16 years, is stepping down. Who will succeed her is uncertain. Parliamentary elections employ a mix of proportional representation (with a 5% threshold for parties to make it in to the Bundestag) and single-district constituencies. The traditional big parties, Mrs Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats along with their Bavarian counterparts (cdu/csu) and the centre-left Social Democrats (spd), are winning fewer votes, and coalitions often bridge the right-left divide. That makes it hard to predict the next government even if polls are accurate, which often they are not.
The Economist has developed a model that aggregates polls and other predictive data, runs thousands of simulated elections and assesses the most probable results and the chances of various coalitions to form a majority. Our model shows that three combinations, each with a popular nickname based on its party colours, have a plausible chance of winning more than half the seats in the Bundestag. These are a “Jamaica” coalition of the cdu/csu, the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats (fdp); a “traffic-light” combination of the Greens, the fdp and the spd; and, the least likely, “black-green” coalition of the cdu/csu and the Greens.
Our results demonstrate just how uncertain the election remains. Voters are not only unsure who will win; many are also unsure what the parties really stand for. The campaign has been dispiritingly superficial, avoiding serious policy debate and focusing instead on the peccadillos and gaffes of party leaders. At a critical moment in their history, German citizens are not being given a clear choice of direction. The parties need to do better.
Strategically, their caution is understandable. None of the big parties’ candidates is well-liked. The cdu/csu’s Armin Laschet secured his party's backing for the chancellery by positioning himself as the blandest contender, and the campaign has confirmed his reputation for dithering. Annalena Baerbock, the Green candidate, had a brief burst of approval after her nomination in April, but handled a plagiarism scandal poorly and has since grown timid. The least unpopular, Olaf Scholz, the spd candidate and current finance minister, rates more highly among voters than his party does. But that is largely because the spd has fallen so far, after spending eight years as junior partner in a grand coalition with Mrs Merkel.
Yet on a host of issues, Germany’s parties should be making it crystal clear where they stand. The floods in July drove home the urgency of stronger policies to curb climate change, an area where Germany—with its huge motor industry and humming coal-fired power plants—faces big challenges. Germany will find it hard to sustain its chummy economic relationship with China, which the rest of the West has come to see as a strategic competitor. Relations with Russia vacillate between the firmness Mrs Merkel displayed after the invasion of Crimea and the conciliatory Ostpolitik she has pursued on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Germany’s assent to the European Union’s covid-19 recovery plan masks deep divisions over collective European spending and debt.
On all of these issues, the parties have real differences. The Greens want a state-led transition to net-zero carbon emissions, a tougher stance towards China and Russia and greater European unity. The cdu/csu want to give business time to adjust to a low-carbon economy and balance foreign-policy independence from China with economic co-operation. The spd want to redistribute more income and avoid foreign spats.
Voters are hearing precious little about these differences. The danger is that the coalition that emerges as Germany’s next government will have no mandate for the vital policy decisions it needs to take. Keeping mum does not even seem to be popular: two new polls that came out this week showed perfectly dismal results for the diffident Mr Laschet and his cdu/csu. German party leaders may think that, by not calling attention to their positions on divisive issues, they are playing it safe. But that strategy is not safe at all, today or in the long run.