IAN McAULEY. What Australia can learn from Germany’s election

Oct 3, 2017

At first sight the German election could be seen as a swing to the right, but it’s more about the continuing decline of traditional “left” and “right” parties, and the differing fortunes of Germany’s regions. In Australia we can learn from Germany about how to handle our own transition to a multi-party democracy.

In comparison with the UK election in June, last month’s election in Germany passed with  little attention from the Australian media.

The obvious outcomes, generally covered in our media, have been a fall in support for the traditional centrist parties – Angela Merkel’s Union (a coalition between the Christian Democratic Union and Bavaria’s Christian Social Union – similar in ways to our Liberal-National Coalition) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), partly offset by a rise in support for the nationalist and anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AFD).

It’s easy to interpret this as a German manifestation of the reactionary and isolationist movements that have contributed to Brexit in the UK and Trump’s victory in the US, but that is to ignore Germany’s particular issues, including the long path of East Germany’s re-integration.

The vote – losses for the centrist parties, gains for many others

The outcomes for the Union and the SPD are indeed woeful. As recently as 2000 both parties were enjoying around 40 per cent support. In this election the Union’s vote was 33 per cent while the SPD’s vote was 21 per cent. This is similar to but more dramatic than Australia’s experience, where over the same period support for the two main parties has fallen from around 40 per cent to around 35 per cent.

Only in the industrialised and densely-populated areas in the northwest  – around Köln, Düsseldorf,  Dortmund and Hamburg – has the SPD maintained a respectable level of support. This, in itself, is in contrast to the British and American experience, because while Germany’s western industrial heartland has undergone a huge transformation, it has not suffered the abandonment of places such as Detroit and England’s north.

The AFD, by contrast, has done well in the old East Germany, where people feel they have been left behind. Within the old eastern European bloc, East Germany was one of the more advanced countries materially and industrially; within the re-unified Germany it is the poor neighbour.

In the area around Leipzig and Dresden, (the state of Niedersachsen), the AFD  vote was 27 per cent. But in that same state the far-left “Linke” party –  a party made up of disaffected SPD members and remnants of the communists who once ruled East Germany – also won 16 percent.

In other words in Niedersachsen there was a 43 percent vote which by one reckoning could be called far-left-far-right, but is perhaps more a sentimental vote for an past order – not only the order of the authoritarian regimes of 1933 to 1989, but also for an earlier period when the region was recognised as the country’s cultural heartland before the relative dominance of materialism in the west’s postwar recovery.

In other parts of the old East Germany the AFD and the Linke also did well. Berlin stood out as an exception: in the central area around Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain (think of Fitzroy or Darlinghurst) the Greens won their only directly-elected seat, and the old East Berlin was a stronghold for the Linke who scored up to 40 per cent in the proportional-representation round of voting. Visitors to Berlin, if they stray into the old eastern zone, will always be struck by the lingering affection older Berliners have for the pre-1989 order.

The other largely untold story is the surge in support for the Free Democratic Party (FDP), which at first glance could be described as libertarian, with its support for less government regulation, relaxed laws on drugs, support for same-sex marriage and other liberal causes. As an Australian parallel David Leyonhjelm’s Liberal Democratic Party comes to mind, but the FDP is well-established,  having been in governing coalitions at both federal and state levels. Also, its platform is not entirely laissez-faire-small-government: it supports increased university funding, and greater investment in infrastructure and the digital economy.

More importantly, it is a strong supporter of globalisation, and of reform of the EU (rather than leaving it). If one could call the FDP’s increased support a swing to the right, it is an entirely different swing to that enjoyed by the AFD and by similar movements in the UK and the US, and by One Nation in Australia, which are generally against engagement with the rest of the world.

In other words the German election illustrates once again that generalisations about swings to and from the “right” and “left” are meaningless.

The overall votes and swings are shown in the table below.

Party Vote % Swing from 2013 election %
Union 32.9 -8.6
SPD 20.5 -5.2
AFD 12.6 7.9
FDP 10.7 5.9
Linke 9.2 0.6
Grüne 8.9 0.5
Others 5.0 -1.3

There are two qualifications to this table. The first is that a quarter to a third of the movement to the AFD and the FDP came from people who had abstained from voting in 2013. Also, because 410 seats out of the Bundestag’s 709 seats are elected by proportional representation, with a 5 per cent cutoff (think of one big combined House of Representatives and Senate), both the SPD and AFD will have significant representation in the new Bundestag – the AFD for the first time.

What now? – most probably business as usual

If this were the outcome of an Australian election the media, so conditioned to a Westminster two-party system, would be ranting about a “hung parliament” (a term which, as far as I know, has no German translation). There would be pressure within the Coalition to shore up support from the “right”, as demonstrated by the Abbott and Turnbull Governments’ preference to deal with One Nation rather than Labor or the Greens to pass legislation.

But Germans know the costs of political extremism, and the consensus is towards centrist politics. Both the main parties have ruled out a deal with AFD (which, like our One Nation, is showing signs of internal conflict). There could be a continuation of the Union-SPD agreement (die große Koalition), or an agreement between the Union, the FDP and the Greens. Given the weakness of the SPD the latter seems more likely.

There will undoubtedly be policy changes, but we’re unlikely to see any radical departure from Germany’s present policy path of pragmatic economic management – what they call the “social market economy” (die soziale Marktwirtschaft). The FDP and the Greens will both drive bargains with the Union, but it would be out of keeping with modern German politics if policy were to be driven by an extremist fringe within any of the coalition parties.

A centrist consensus does not preclude policy differences between parties, but it provides a degree of protection against rent seekers who exploit the opportunities when a party is determined to differentiate itself from the other party and to ridicule its policies, regardless of the merits of those policies. In Australia policies on energy, resource rent taxes, health insurance and housing speculation are prominent examples of the way rent-seekers have played our two-party adversarial system to their advantage. With a centrist consensus rent seekers cannot play that game so easily, and economic reform can progress on a steady path without the shocks and uncertainty that accompany changes in government.

Unfortunately, so many of our journalists, including experienced ABC journalists, are locked into the Westminster “two party” way of thinking, particularly in their obsession with “balance”, even though there is nothing in our Constitution that prescribes a Westminster two party adversarial model.

Perhaps it may help broaden the ABC’s political understanding if, in recognition of Britain’s isolation and dwindling relevance to Australia, it were to shift its European office from London to one of the mainland European capitals.

That would provide us with far better coverage of European political and economic events than I or any other distant observer could do.


Ian McAuley is an Adjunct Lecturer in Public Sector Finance at the University of Canberra and a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Development.





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