The somber re-election of Angela Merkel

The somber re-election of Angela Merkel
Results of exit polls released on German television after polls close

The headlines of American newspapers today will read, “German Chancellor Angela Merkel decidedly wins fourth term.” I saw tweets boasting the re-election of the “leader of the free world” from liberals in the United States.

While that accurately depicts the results of the election, it doesn’t convey the undertone of that win. To give you an idea, when the results of exit polls were released at 6 p.m. Sunday night, the Social Democrats watch party I attended went silent.

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Germany Decides: An American view of the German election

Germany Decides: An American view of the German election

In my cab on the way home the other night, my cabbie and I started talking about the upcoming German election. It’s quite unusual for the normally private Germans to speak frankly about politics — so it was incredibly interesting to hear his view.

Martin Schulz speaking at an SPD rally Friday night in Berlin
“They’re all the same,” he told me. “They’ve promised so many things and broken their promises. Like pensions. I’ve worked for 30 years and I should have a good pension, but they’ve not raised the pension amount.”

The tone he used felt rather familiar — he just wanted a way to say to the “elite” that they needed to stop ignoring the problems facing him.

Tomorrow, Germans will head to the polls to cast their vote. I’ve been attending some of the debates and political rallies and, thus, thought it might be interesting to share what I’ve seen so far.

CDU exhibit in Berlin
For instance, check out this crazy exhibit that Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has in Berlin. You go from room to room learning more about the party’s platforms… like this giant beating heart attached to statistics about what Merkel has achieved over her time as chancellor.

I’m not sure how something like this would go over in America, but as one friend said, Merkel’s party can afford to take risks. Pundits have called the election season “boring” as Mrs. Merkel is widely expected to remain chancellor because the CDU/CSU is significantly ahead in the polls.

Yet, there’s still a lot to watch here in my opinion, but it might not be exclusively on election night. The German election system is fascinating because the voters get two votes. On one ballot, they decide which party they want. On the second, they vote for specific candidates. It’s kind of complicated to explain but the number of seats a party gets in the Bundestag is dependent on their percentage of the vote. The first seats are filled by those directly elected and then the party decides who fills in the other spots up to the amount of seats determined by the percentage won during the party ballot.

A party needs 50% of the vote in order to form a government. If they don’t get that amount, they must form a coalition with other parties until they get 50% to form a government.

SPD chancellor candidate Martin Schulz at a campaign event in Berlin Friday
For the past few years, Angela Merkel’s center-right party, the CDU, has formed what’s called the “grand coalition” with the center-left Social Democratic Party, or SPD. These are the two most popular parties in Germany.

From a distance, as an American, it feels refreshing to see two opposing parties getting along to do the will of the people.

But many believe it has caused a weakening of the mainstream parties — especially SPD — because people generally think the two parties are the same and hold both responsible for decisions made by the government. In addition, it’s hard for the SPD to criticize Merkel’s policies because their party was part of the decision process and thus, if the decision is so bad, why didn’t they stop it?

That has led to an opportunity for fringe parties to recruit voters as people look for ways to voice their displeasure with the status quo.

Deutsche-Welle debate between the parties last week
As you’re watching the results, I think there are two important things to observe. First, the percentage of the vote the fringe parties receive — notably the Alternative for Deutschland, or AfD. The AfD is the nationalistic/populist and far-right party. They’ve had some pretty offensive, sexist and Islamophobic campaign ads and when I was at the Deutsche-Welle debate a few weeks ago, the representative’s rhetoric sounded very Trump-like. (The debate is in English if you care to watch.)

They’ve also had a fair amount of Russian bots and trolls pushing their message through social media, though Germans don’t use social media as prolifically as Americans and generally are more skeptical of news reports. (One German suggested to me that is the legacy of East Germany propaganda media.)

Couple guys taking an AfD sign that was on the ground to the trash
AfD needs 5% of the vote to be allowed in the Bundestag (German Parliament) and they’ve failed to get that in the past, yet, now they’re polling at 10%. I think it is possible that number could be higher as you see a “Trump effect” of people not admitting to how they’re planning to vote as well as those who will want to use their vote to send a message the main parties that they are unhappy.

The second thing to watch is which party Merkel’s CDU/CSU, which will likely get a large percentage of the vote but not 50%, will choose to form a coalition government. SPD has said there is no chance of another “grand coalition,” so which fringe party will CDU team with to form a government? The Economist had a great explainer about the several options.

Finally, it’s impossible to compare the political parties here to the political parties in the U.S. But if you want to see which party your views would align with there is a “Wahl-o-mat” where you can answer questions and see which parties represent you. “Wahl” in German means “choice” or “election.” (Tip: Put it into a Google chrome browser so you can get it to translate the questions. Some questions may not make sense because they deal with internal German politics.)

I’ll be watching the results with one of the parties tomorrow and heading out to a polling place. If I get some time, I’ll post here again after the results.