News analysis

Expect the unexpected in German polls

Under a facade of predictability bubbles a revolution with the far right on the rise

Germans go to the polls today in a general election widely dismissed as the most boring in decades.

With Chancellor Angela Merkel seemingly guaranteed to win a fourth consecutive term in office, the country's top newspapers have preferred to devote their headlines in the closing days of the campaign to the crisis in North Korea, rather than the electoral race at home.

But appearances are deceiving. For behind this facade of predictability bubbles a German political revolution. And Dr Merkel, who has dominated Germany's political life since 2005, may well find that her latest term in office could well be her hardest.

Dr Merkel's centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is leading in every opinion poll by double-digit margins against the centre-left socialists, known by their German-language acronym SPD, which is led by the lacklustre Martin Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament.

So the real figures to watch as polls close tonight are not so much the ones about who the ultimate winner is but, rather, the ones on what percentage of the popular vote each of Germany's big political movements gets, for that, peculiarly, will determine the political narrative.

Since Dr Merkel's CDU did exceptionally well at the last general election four years ago, nobody expects it to repeat that performance. Still, if the CDU and its regional allies poll much under the 41 per cent of the ballots which they attracted at the previous general election, it will be regarded as a snub to Dr Merkel since the entire electoral campaign was about her personal stewardship. In effect, therefore, a victory can still be interpreted as a defeat.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel campaigning at Marienplatz Square in Munich on Friday. Dr Merkel, who has dominated Germany's political life since 2005 and is expected to win another term, may find it to be her hardest yet. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The same logic, in reverse, applies to the opposition SPD. Everyone expects it to be defeated, but the question is how serious its drubbing may be. Anything above 23 per cent of the vote - its worst result in recent times, recorded back in 2009 - would still be considered as an achievement of sorts for Mr Schulz, who may yet claim victory out of defeat.

But if the party dips below that magic 23 per cent threshold, it would be recording its worst electoral score since the current federal republic emerged from the ashes of Nazi Germany at the end of World War II. And that would be a disaster for a party which has led Germany's social-democratic, trade unionist movement since the mid-19th century.

Yet, history will also be made tonight. Germany's political system is explicitly designed to prevent lurches to political extremes - parties with extremist ideas can be banned outright, and no new party gets any parliamentary representation unless it captures more than 5 per cent of the votes.

Nevertheless, the European Union-sceptic, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party seems set to smash that threshold - polls suggest it could collect 10 to 12 per cent of the votes, a feat no other far-right political movement has achieved since 1949.

Germany's political establishment and media still treat the AfD as an aberration, a collection of misfits who don't merit attention. But the the AfD could well tonight become Germany's third-largest party, entitled to state subsidies, access to the media and a proportional representation on the boards of state-owned institutions. In short, it will achieve precisely the sort of national legitimacy which until recently no one thought possible.

The AfD's anticipated success will also accelerate Germany's wider political fragmentation. When the current republic was established, there were only three parliamentary parties. The next German legislature will have double that number of parties, exactly what the fathers of the current state sought to avoid.

In classic German fashion, Chancellor Merkel will probably have to settle for a "grand coalition" with her chief opponents, similar to the one which has governed the country the past four years.

But this time, successfully installing a new government won't bring immediate stabilitybecause everyone, including the Chancellor, accepts that this will be Dr Merkel's last term in office. And since a new leader will have to be in place well before the next election, speculation about Dr Merkel's replacement is guaranteed to start from the moment the present government is installed.

Dr Merkel is a shrewd politician. She has an amazing talent for carefully calculating her moves, and for packaging her policies as not only the best, but also the only logical ones. However, she also suffers from the traditional affliction of most politicians: a reluctance to identify or name a successor, which means that the fight over her succession will be hard and probably messy.

In short, Germany's political waters may look placid on the surface, but that only hides deep undercurrents. And nothing remains less predictable than this supposedly predictable nation.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 24, 2017, with the headline 'Expect the unexpected in German polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe