Mark Tooley speaks with Christian Forstner about the recent German elections, during which the Social Democratic Party (SPD) won more votes than Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU) bloc.

Rough Transcript

Mark Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with the pleasure today of talking to my friend Christian Forstner, head of the DC office of the Hans Seidel Foundation, a think take associated with the Bavarian Christian Social Union. And so, he is an expert on German politics and will share with us today his own analysis of the just concluded elections in Germany, of course, including the retirement of Chancellor Angela Merkel after over a decade and a half. The results are not yet certain in terms of who will lead the next government, but the party that gained the most votes was the Social Democratic Party, and we will see what happens. So, Christian, what are your insights and what is going to happen?

Christian Forstner: Thank you, Mark, for having me and inviting me to talk with you about the elections in Germany, which were held just recently, this past Sunday, the 26th of September. These elections were the transformative because Angela Merkel had announced before the elections that she will, so, the long serving Chancellor Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany since 2005, she had announced before the elections that she would not run again and she would be phasing out now from government. So, it’s a matter of time when this will happen, yeah. So, the system in Germany requires a majority in parliament, and the election results, which we’re going to have a closer look at this in a minute, but the election results, as usual in Germany, don’t produce a majority winner. So, no political party gets a majority of seats in parliament, so they always need to form coalitions with coalition partners. They enter now negotiations, coalition negotiations, and this will take time. And for the time being, the current Chancellor Angela Merkel will remain in power. So, we do have a caretaker government and this government remains in power until a new government will be sworn in. And this might take weeks, a month, maybe half a year, so there’s no rush and no constitutional limit. Now quickly to the election results… so, in general what is important, what do we have to look at when we talk about these elections, the first outcome is that the center holds. So, there was a lot of debate in previous years about the strengthening of the fringe parties on the left and the right. So, the former communists, call it the left, or on the right side, the Alternative for Germany, this right-wing populist party which benefits from resentment against migration, against European integration, against the introduction of the Euro, this common European currency. So, the right wing and the left wing did not gain seats, so the center still holds. The second big result is that the turnout was high, even slightly higher than in previous elections. So, it’s around 80%, almost 80%, 8.0., of all eligible voters in Germany cast their vote. This is a decent outcome, and in this context, there is no sense of any big fraud. The election results are widely accepted, they are not contested, and they produced legitimate winners and losers who do have to accept the result and who do not dispute the election results. So, democracy works. Third, the third outcome, and more like a structural result, the CDU, which is the dominant force and has been the dominant force of center, so the right of center Christian Democratic Union, with the sister party, as you have mentioned, the Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, those conservative parties have always had the majority within the center in Germany. And now they narrowly lost it and they are back down to 24-25%, which is their lowest result in decades. So, the dominant force, the CDU, the Christian Democrats, the dominant force of the center, this is weakened and partly nonexistent anymore. Shortly, yeah, to more structural results which we could observe in the recent elections… so, first, party allegiance is going down. So, this party voter who consistently votes for one political party does not exist anymore. You have a lot of swing voters swinging from one party to another for variety of reasons, and we can have a closer look as well. Second, volatility… so, a month ago, we had the CDU still polling very high. A year ago, at almost 40%. We had a month ago the Green Party as the number one party in the polls. And now, on election day, we had the CDU doing pretty well and the Greens down below 20%. So, yeah, volatility in voting and behavior, and these are major. Maybe a third aspect to mention, the big topics, the big issues, are climate change… so, for the German voters what matters most is climate change, social inclusion, migration and integration, and jobs and the economy after college. And the last point, against this backdrop, volatility, reduced party allegiance, personality matters more than party platform. So, when you have fewer voters attached consistently to a political party, but casting a vote based on very volatile and short-term considerations, so the individual personality matters more than the party platform. These are the basic outcomes, and now we can happily have a closer look here to the results and what that means for the government building.

Tooley: So, good news in that the parties of the extremes did not increase their share of the vote this time around. The far-right party, which was animated especially after the acceptance of so many refugees and immigrants from the Middle East by Chancellor Merkel seems to have receded for the moment. And the next government, Christian, you think is likely to be led by the Social Democrats, with the Free Democrats and the Greens?

Forstner: Yes, most likely, because if you look at the numbers, so, the Social Democrats, they gained seats. The Greens gained seats. The Liberals of the FDP held the numbers of what they got four years ago. The CDU, the conservative party, lost seats. So, freely, the CDU, the conservatives, could still form a coalition, with the minor political parties, with the Greens and liberals. It would be enough to get a majority, yeah. But if you look at the voter and the imperative of the voters, what the voters wanted to express by casting their vote, you would say they don’t want to have the CDU with this offer to remain in power. The voters don’t want the CDU in power, though there’s not clear what wish to remain in power. It’s clearer, or it’s more consistent, that the SDP, in all polls when you compare the popularity of the frontrunners from the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrat candidate, Olaf Scholz, he fares better, he’s more liked, he’s more popular, and his political party got more votes and more seats in the parliament. So, in combination you would say the voters would prefer an SDP-led coalition, and this is practically and theoretically possible, whereas for the CDU, that’s only a theoretical possibility but the voters would not wish the CDU remain in power.

Tooley: And polls revealed that while older people still remained more loyal to the historic parties, to the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats, that young people are much less tied to the historic parties and more engaged with these newer parties: the Greens, the far right, the far left. So, back in the old days, the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats may get perhaps 40% of vote. They got 25-26% of the vote in this election. Is this a new permanent factor in German politics or was this a passing phase of so many political parties contending?

Forstner: Oh, it’s certainly a wake-up call for the traditional parties. If they, for instance, what you have said rightly pointed at the first-time voters, yeah, they predominantly vote either for the Greens or for the liberals, not for the extreme right. So, number one and number two are the liberals and the Greens. Both political parties, and the Greens certainly, are to be considered mainstream and established, establishment parties. So, it’s not a fringe party. It’s not an extreme party. If we look at the voters in more detail of the Green Party, they are affluent urban voters who can afford to live in the inner cities: nice apartments, children sometimes in private schools, well-paid jobs, driving, vacationing. So, it’s a well-being and well-feeling urban environment benefiting the Green voters. So, it’s an establishment party. And the liberals, for them it’s climate change, it’s a big issue, and human values and politics, a very welcome approach on migration policy. So, that’s the Green voter who can afford a lot. That’s like the liberal voter on the East and West coast in the US. That’s this urban environment, yeah. The liberal voter, also very popular among the younger generation, it’s more this digital savvy young. So, it’s digitalization, modernization, economic opportunities, “believe in yourself and your future,” “take it into your own hands,” less state, more individual freedom, opportunities. So, this is the liberal voter. That’s why they are popular. So, you have this climate, liberal values agenda for the Greens, and this digital millennial younger voter for the liberal. So, for the traditional parties of the center, the Social Democrats and the CDU, they’re losing out among the younger generation. And certainly concerning for the CDU is that they are now only at second place among the older generation, among the retired people. This is was because the candidate was not really attractive, and the CDU, the conservatives, could not offer any models of how to preserve a social market economy. It was too much stability, too much of a continuation and not enough of a fresh start, fresh looks, for a fresh look into our challenges and the stability of the retirement system, of the social system, of the social care system. It certainly demands a fresh look and some changes and adjustments, because we face demographic changes. Our population is getting older, it lives longer, it’s longer entitled to benefits in the retirement system. So, to balance the system financially, this has to be addressed. And the CDU did not come forward with any new ideas on how to balance life expectancy and the work-life expectancy, so many shifted here to the Social Democrats. So, the younger generation shifts towards the Liberals and the Greens, the older generation remains within the traditional parties, but the CDU has a very difficult position on either end, on the younger end and on the older end, which is really concerning for the main top leadership of the conservative movement in Germany. It’s really concerning.

Tooley: So, for Americans understanding where Germans are, the Greens are perhaps the equivalent of Bernie Sanders Democrats… would that be fair? And the Free Democrats are maybe sort of like American libertarians? Is that a fair approximation?

Forstner: Fair approximation, yes. Liberals, yes, they’re more like the libertarians. The Greens are more like this climate agenda, climate-protection driven progressive part of the Democrats. But it’s not like the social populism of Bernie Sanders. The Greens are less social-driven; they’re more the upper-middle class. It’s not the lower-middle class and the working people, the blue-collar voters, like Bernie Sanders types. But the Greens are truly the upper-middle class, the liberal elite of the East and West coast, these are the Greens. The urban elite, affluent urban elite, in Germany.

Tooley: And the extreme parties, the far-right and the descendants of the communist party, they together got what 15-18% of the vote?

Forstner: Exactly. 15. So, the extreme right 10, and former communists 5. So, no gains. And it’s mainly, as you said, the migration when the right wing got a new boost and revival with the migration crisis. This was a second revival. The first was the economic crisis across Europe, the introduction of the Euro, and then the solidarity mechanism, the financial solidarity mechanism, to other European states, member states. This was the first boost for the AfD, anti-Brussels, anti-European integration, and then in 2015, anti-migration. But now they’re a bit out of steam, as we could see over the last years. And it has been proven in numerous studies. So, the populist votes and the right-wing votes are mainly linked to a perception of behindness in economic development, of infrastructure behindness, of a lack of opportunities. So, the rural areas feel like they’re being left behind in economic development, and this is more a signal of protests. They’re not a coherent vote for any idea ideology. So, it’s more like an economic outcry and not an ideology.

Tooley: Then, finally, and quickly, Christian, under the Social Democratic-led government with the Free Democrats and the Greens, any major changes in German-American relations or basically mostly the status quo?

Forstner: No, no, I would dispute it. I would dispute it. It seems on the surface like a continuation and some overlaps in the big policy issues like climate change. Of course, a more left government in Germany puts climate change higher on the agenda, or deficit spending, so, we abandoned strict budget roots and are more inclined to deficit spending. And certainly, in the Euro bonds and more financial solidarity after college. And maybe a tougher stance on human rights issues towards China and Russia. So, these are the basic elements which certainly will be welcomed by the current administration in the context of the transatlantic relationships. But a closer look, I would say, reveals defense spending is a big issue, but no left government in Germany pledges to the 2% goal of defense spending. The big European integration project, the efense union to make Europe more relevant in security policy, for the left, Europe is more of a social project and not a defense project. On migration, what people expect is really a balance between integration and border security. So, welcoming, yes, but border security too. So, big issues, big question marks, if this balance will be really achieved. Sound finances across Europe, an open question. China and Russia… do we see both countries more as authoritarian regimes with huge domestic problems in human rights, or do we really see both countries as geopolitical competitors and rivalries and both have to be contained and addressed adequately? So, in a variety of different forms, from diplomatic to economic to military forms, do we see it more in the broader geopolitical context or more as a human rights issue and challenge? So, these are the bigger issues. The first reaction, of course, I would say a lot of consideration, and certainly the prospective new chancellor Olaf Scholz, he’s a very respected and known transatlanticist. So, he’s pro-America and he has well-established working relationships, but he brings along a party political… the Green Party is against trade agreements. So, our trade relationship is not moving forward with a left government in Germany. So, I don’t see any trade agreements really being accepted on the German side under a left government. And there’s a lot of anti-Americanism which we even witnessed during the last years under a very popular president like Barack Obama, and still now. But this anti-Americanism often comes from the left in Germany. So, there are undercurrents. I would say you have to look at those undercurrents as well and not only the big picture. And the big picture is climate, yeah, we agree, China, we have an alignment, Russia as well, and COVID international solidarity, yes of course. While the big picture looks perspective and optimistic, the details, I would say the devil lies in the details. I would say this requires a closer look and a lot of work.

Tooley: Christian Forstner, head of the Hans Seidel Foundation’s Washington, DC office, thank you for your overview of the German elections.

Forstner: Thank you so much, Mark. Goodbye.