Despite pre-election polls showing half the electorate as undecided, the September 22 German general election saw a resounding win for the incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU); Ms Merkel is the third post-war German Chancellor to win three successive terms. Under the hybrid electoral system, whereby 299 members of the federal lower chamber, the Bundestag, are elected by simple majority in individual constituencies and 299 by party-list proportional reckoning (the decisive element), the alliance has won 41.5 per cent of the vote, and with 311 seats is only five short of an absolute majority. Its closest challenger, Peer Steinbrück’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), came a distant second, with 192 seats on a 25.7 per cent vote-share. The Left Party and the Alliance/The Greens saw respective falls of 3.3 and 2.3 percentage points from the 2009 election, ending with 64 and 63 seats. The worst result was that of the former coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), which failed even to reach the 5 per cent threshold and now has no presence in the Bundestag.
Despite the smart rise in its vote share, the CDU/CSU will not find it easy to fashion a viable and coherent coalition government. Yet, succeed it must, because a ‘Red-Red-Green’ coalition, which actually would have 319 seats in the Bundestag, is not possible because neither the SPD nor the Greens wish to join forces with the Left party, mainly because of its perceived Communist inheritance from the erstwhile German Democratic Republic. While the FDP meltdown may have been caused by its move from the centre to far-right economic liberalism, the SPD has its own questions to face. It has lost core support for its part in the 2005-09 Grand Coalition with the CDU and for its own earlier changes in labour law, written by the former Volkswagen executive Peter Hartz, which have harmed lower-income groups and may breach the constitutional principle of human dignity. With the Greens opposed to joining hands with Ms Merkel and a CDU-SPD coalition now the most likely outcome, squaring the ideological circle will require flexibility on both sides. German voters across the board see Ms Merkel as having saved the Eurozone with a bailout and tough austerity measures for Greece, but their own banks have had huge bailouts, and the CDU has little new to offer by way of a domestic vision or one for the European Union. That may suit the German electorate at present, but if for any reason Europe’s economic giant finds its international political reticence tested, the voters may well discover that it was not enough to elect a Chancellor on personal approval alone.