Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

The Role of the Small Parties in Germany's Elections

Coalition Options for the Next Government

The nationally televised election debate in Germany earlier this month between Chancellor Angela Merkel and her rival Martin Schulz of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) lived up to none of the hype. The “duel,” as it was billed, felt more like polite bickering between an elderly couple. It didn’t shake up the sleepy, substance-bereft contest between the two parties that will conclude on election day, September 24.

In stark contrast, the debate between Germany’s five smaller parties the next night showcased a splendid, teeth-baring brawl. The Greens’ Cem Özdemir fired with both barrels at the Bavarian Christian democrat (CSU) Joachim Herrmann, challenging him on the destructive impact of coal and lecturing him on Christian values, such as cherishing God’s creations. Hermann responded, grinning, “But there are no coal plants in Bavaria!” (The CSU, part of Merkel’s coalition, has fought a ban on coal production Germany-wide.) The liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the socialist Left Party, meanwhile, clashed over rent controls, social security, immigration, nuclear weapons in Europe, and diesel-engine cars. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) charged the government with “dealing with Islamic warlords in Libya,” referring to Merkel’s negotiations to limit refugee flows from Northern Africa.

Indeed, since it’s a virtually foregone conclusion that Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats (CDU) will nail down a fourth term, there is copious speculation over the intriguing coalition options that could form the next government, a process that will depend, largely, on how the smaller parties fare in the election. The vote comes at a defining moment for Europe, as it must grapple simultaneously with rejuvenating the beleaguered EU, managing the euro crisis and immigration, and juggling relations with old and new autocrats. How this plays out for Germany, and Europe as a whole, hinges upon the color of Merkel’s choice of coalition partner, or partners.

GRAND AGAIN

The surest bet may initially look like a renewal of the “grand coalition” between the CDU and SPD, which broad public trust. But it is not guaranteed. Barring a wholly unexpected twist, Germany’s two major parties will repeat their performances in the last election, but lose voters. Polls currently show the CDU capturing 36 percent of the vote and the SPD 23 percent, down five and three percent, respectively from 2013. Behind Merkel’s centrist rule, the two parties cooperated amiably, passing laws favoring tenants’ rights and a minimum wage, addressing the euro crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and overseeing Germany's adoption of renewable energy. Moreover, Germany’s economy has prospered since the late aughts like no other in Europe.

Read the full article on ForeignAffairs.com