German Federal Elections: Voters Rock the Party System

The result

The Germans have voted and rocked the German party system. The election night was like a thriller – including a murder. After the voting boots had closed at six o’clock in the evening, the first prognosis indicated that the liberal party (Free Democrats) would not make it into parliament. At about eight o’clock in the evening, it looked as if the Christian Democrats would even get an absolute majority of seats. Taken together, the Social Democrats and Greens who had fought for a change in government could not obtain as many seats as the Christian Democrats alone. The Left Party did make it, the Alliance for Germany, a right-wing conservative party, came close to the five-percent hurdle but finally missed it. The prognoses proved right except for the short time span in the evening when they assumed a majority for the Christian Democrats.

What is so unique about the election outcome and why can we say the voters rocked the German party system? The most significant aspect is that the Liberals did not take the five-percent hurdle. This party had been in the German Bundestag since 1949 and has the longest government record of all parties. The Liberals in the German party system are ideologically located between the Social Democrats on the left and Christian Democrats on the right side which provided them for a long time the pivotal role regarding the government coalition. They were in government with the Christian Democrats from 1949 to 1965, with the Social Democrats from 1969 to 1982, again with the Christian Democrats from 1982 to 1998 and 2009 to 2013. This means the liberals have always been part of the government except for two very short periods of a single-party government in 1961 and 1982, two periods of Grand Coalitions between the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats from 1966 to 1969 and 2005 to 2009, and the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens 1998 to 2005. In 2009, they gained their largest vote share (14.6 percent) since 1949 (on average it was 9.2). The significance of their poor election result in 2013 becomes obvious looking at the parliamentary party system after the election. To the right of the middle there are just the Christian Democrats, to the left of the middle the Social Democrats, The Left and the Greens. In principle, the political camp right of the center has lost the opportunity for forming coalitions because there is only one actor left: the Christian Democrats. The second challenge from the election result is the success of a right-wing conservative party (AfD, Alliance for Germany) which is explicitly anti-Euro. Although the AfD did not make it into parliament, the fact that this party has been able to mobilize the support of 4.7 percent of the voters within five months after its founding makes the established parties nervous.

The Social Democrats had the second worst election result since 1949 (following the worst in 2009). The Greens lost a little more than two percentage points in relation to 2009. However, compared to surveys until the end of July, the Green’s support declined by about seven percentage points. Thus, the Social Democrats and Greens are far from holding a government majority sharing six percentage points less of the votes than the Christian Democrats alone. A majority without Christian Democrats would only be possible if the Social Democrats and Greens would form a coalition with The Left.

Why did this happen?

The Liberals suffered from their poor performance in the government coalition, being not able to keep their pledges. 90 percent of the voters of the Liberals in 2009 said that their party had promised much but implemented very little (Infratest dimap 22/09/2013). Whereas voters where quite satisfied with the Christian Democrats who showed positive evaluations since July 2011, the Liberals reached negative scores from a point in time very soon after the last federal elections in September 2009 (Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, Politbarometer).

A new election law makes it useless to split vote for strategic reasons. Now surplus seats are compensated. This had not been the case in 2009 when the liberals had the highest vote share in their history due to ticket-splitting.

The chancellor who presents herself rather in a presidential way than as a partisan chief of government with extremely high support among voters certainly increased the support for Christian Democrats. She explicitly campaigned by telling the people “You may not like the CDU. But if you want me you will only get me if you will vote for Christian Democrats.” About 60 percent of voters preferred Angela Merkel as chancellor, only about 30 percent Peer Steinbrück, the SPD chancellor candidate. Even 67 percent of social democratic voters attested Chancellor Merkel that she did a good job (Forschungsgruppe Wahlen: Bundestagswahl 22/09/2013 – Blitz).

There has been a gender gap in voting of about five percentage points to the advantage of Christian Democrats among female voters. Social Democrats also failed to get the support of former core voters like workers. Workers voted for the Social Democrats only a little more above average: 27 percent. 35 percent of them, however, voted for Christian Democrats (infratest dimap, 22/09/2013).

Social Democrats did not convince the voters of their higher policy competence and better policies. Even in their core field, social justice, the SPD failed to win over the majority of voters. Only 35 percent regarded them as the most competent party concerning social justice, while almost a third of the voters saw the Christian Democrats as the most competent party even in this traditionally social democratic field. Out of nine important policy fields from labor market to family, voters regarded the SPD more competent than the Christian Democrats only regarding social justice (Forschungsgruppe Wahlen: Bundestagswahl 22/09/2013 – Blitz).

A context which also helped the governing CDU is that Germany came out of the Euro crisis better than its neighbors and economic performance is moving to the positive direction. About 70 percent of citizens regarded the general economic situation of Germany as good or very good.

Government formation under pressure

The situation for government formation after the election is quite complex. The Christian Democrats failed to get the absolute majority by just five seats. The three remaining parties in parliament are located left of the center – the Social Democrats, the Greens, and The Left. Thus, everything should be easy? Not quite.

After it became clear that no other option than a Grand Coalition was left, the Social Democrats are probably facing the most difficult situation. There is a huge public pressure on them not to flee from responsibility. A majority of voters – close to 60 percent – support a Grand Coalition as the best of the possible solutions. However, the party also fears to lose its identity and end up in a similar situation to that after the Grand Coalition from 2005 to 2009. The elections in 2009 brought about the worst result for the Social Democrats since the existence of the Federal Republic of Germany. Thus, the essentials of the social democratic election program have to become part of the coalition agreement. This includes minimum wages and tax increases for those being better off. The party convention has agreed to begin talks with the Christian Democrats with an open outcome. The party leader, Sigmar Gabriel, announced that the some 470.000 party members will have a say should negotiations at the leader level be successful and a Grand Coalition be proposed by the negotiation team. He made clear, however, that if the members will not give their support to such a proposal, the whole party leadership would step down. By this procedure, the party had put itself under a double pressure: The party leaders had to get the essentials of their election program into the coalition agreement, and now the members are under pressure to accept the proposal in order to avoid a leadership crisis of the party.


If the solution will be a Grand Coalition, this will have consequences which are not totally satisfactory in terms of democratic theory and norms. The government majority will be so large that the opposition will miss its effectiveness. Opposition parties in parliament will be too small to have the right to appeal to the constitutional court or to implement a parliamentary board of inquiry. Such a situation of an enormously oversized coalition is certainly a consequence not easily to accept.

This may steer the feeling of a representation deficit in combination with the fact that the highest proportion of voters ever is not represented in parliament because the respective parties failed to overcome the 5-percent hurdle. More than 15 percent of the voters are not represented, among them voters of the Liberals (4.8 percent) and the right-wing conservatives (AfD, 4.7 percent).

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