Confessions of a Political Animal

September 28, 2009

European Left Watch: Germany & Portugal

BundestagOne weekend, two elections. And two rather differing stories for the European centre left.

Germany: After what was, by all accounts, a dull campaign, Germany went to the polls for elections to the Bundestag on Sunday. This could perhaps be described as a two headline election. The first was already written well before this week: the centre-right CDU‘s Angela Merkel would win a second term in office as Chancellor. The second part was more interesting: who would she be governing with? Merkel and the CDU made no secret throughout the campaign (and well before) that it wanted to end the grand coalition with the centre-left SPD it was reluctantly forced into following the tight 2005 election. The CDU’s choice of partner was quite clear – the economically liberal FDP (who for some reason always get described in the British media as ‘pro-business’, as if the CDU and SPD weren’t), the longstanding king-makers of post-war German politics.

The SPD, going into the election trailing heavily in the polls under the grand coalition Foreign Secretary Frank-Walter Steinmeier was less clear about its preferred outcome, guessing perhaps that beggars weren’t in the best of positions to be choosers. Having, foolishly to my mind, ruled out a coalition government with Oskar Lafontaine’s Die Linke party – which the opinion polls briefly suggested could take power as part of an SPD-Green-Linke coalition, they appeared to go through the campaign seeing a forced continuation of the grand coalition as their only hope of retaining power. At no point did it look like the SPD and their Schröder-era coaliton partners in the Greens would by themselves be able to command a majority.

Fan or not of his heavily reformist brand of social democrat politics, it has become increasingly clear that the SPD is still suffering from being deprived of two term chancellor Gerhard Schröder. On two occasions he bought the SPD back from seeming certain defeat: to a narrow victory in 2002 and to a defeat so narrow in 2005 that it gave some of his colleagues four more years in ministerial Mercedes. Equally, it is clear that Merkel (or someone else in CDU high command) drove a great bargain in demanding that Schröder should play no part in the CDU-SPD government.

But on the other hand, the policies pursued by Schröder must also be considered to play a not inconsiderable part in the SPD’s current woes. As  well as losing the support of the strain of left-leaning SPDers around Lafontaine, Schröder’s right-ward trajectory also provided the opportunity for the surprising partial rehabilitation of the former East German Communist Party through its merging into Die Linke. Particularly in the former East, this alternative force has led to a near-total collapse in SPD support in many industrial and ex-industrial areas where it should be at its strongest.

Nor have SPD members of the outgoing administration covered themselves in any great glory, although Steinmeier has a relatively high personal popularity. Whilst undoubtedly acting as a brake on Merkel to some degree (rail privatisation was effectively delayed until after the election by a lack of SPD support, for example), many SPD ministers have failed to pursue even Schröder-style Social Democracy. Indeed, many on the British right will mourn the passing from office of Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück, whose very un-left wing legal insistence on balanced budgets and public criticism of Gordon Brown’s decidedly unbalanced books they loved to use to rebut the PM’s claims of global support for fiscal stimuli. Nevertheless, despite the almost complete kowtowing of SPD ministers to the CDU’s agenda, the forces of free-market global capitalism demanded that even this block be removed: The Economist front cover featured a caged Merkel, with the instruction to ‘Set Angela Free’. Fairly or not, the SPD had managed to get themselves painted as free-market cheerleaders by the left and as socialist blocks to economic reform by the right.

Despite Steinmeier’s best efforts, there was precious little enthusiasm for the SPD in the campaign. And this was fulsomely borne out by the results from last night. Bundestag seats are divided between those elected on a constituency basis and those elected through party lists. In the constituencies, the SPD scored 27.9%, whilst in the lists it took just 23%, in both cases drops of around 11% from 2005. These are the worst post-war results for the SPD, translating into a net loss of 76 seats. It will come as no great comfort to the SPD that the lacklustre campaign also translated into small vote share losses for the CDU (although the vagaries of the electoral system translated these into a small increase in seats). The three smaller parties in the Bundestag – the FDP, Greens and Die Linke – were big winners, taking between them 71 extra seats, accounting for most of the SPD’s losses. The combined strength in seats of the Greens and Die Linke is only two short of the SPD’s own score, suggesting that the time is fast approaching where the walls put up by both the SPD and Die Linke to co-operation at a national level (there are already some regional alliances, most notably the joint administration of Berlin’s SPD Mayor) will have to come tumbling down if the left is ever to govern in Germany again. Overall, there was no decisive rejection of the left: the three main left-leaning parties scored 45.6% to the right’s 48.4%. The question is not whether the German left can win again, but rather under what alignment. For now though, a period of centre-right government beckons, with a majority of 42 for a CDU+CSU (the CDU’s Bavarian sister party)+FPD. Merkel herself is a pretty old-style social capitalist: left to her own devices, there would probably be little change in direction from the past four years. The worry, from a centre left perspective, is the free-market FDP, who are emboldened by their strong electoral showing and are already pushing for the finance ministry. This could well mean real cuts to Germany’s Bismarckian welfare system and sweeping privatisation to come – almost certainly not the policies that Germany needs at this economic juncture. Another toe-hold for the European left disappears, and a major one this time.

Summary of the results below:

Party Politics Constituency vote share(Change from 2005) Constituency seats (Change from 2005) List vote share (Change from 2005) List seats (Change from 2005) Total seats (Change from 2005)
Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU) Centre right 32.0% (-0.6%) 173 (+67) 27.3% (-0.5) 21 (-53) 194 (+14)
Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) Social democrat 27.9% (-10.5%) 64 (-81) 23.0% (-11.2%) 82 (+5) 146 (-76)
Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP) Economic liberal 9.4% (+4.7%) 0 (+/-0) 14.6% (+4.8%) 93 (+32) 93 (+32)
Die Linke Socialist 11.1% (+3.1%) 16 (+13) 11.9% (+3.2%) 60 (+9) 76 (+22)
Bündnis 90/Die Grünen Ecological left 9.2% (+3.8%) 1 (+/-0) 10.7% (+2.6%) 67 (+17) 68 (+17)
Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern (CSU) Regionalist centre right 7.4% (-0.9%) 45 (+1) 6.5% (-0.9%) 0 (-2) 45 (-1)

Portugal: If the SPD’s woes make for unhappy reading from Labour’s perspective – insofar as the national circumstances of any European nation are instantly transferable to any other – the Portuguese election results could provide a little more comfort. Here an incumbent centre-left government went to the polls in the midst of economic crisis, having engaged in a significant debt-financed fiscal stimulus, and whilst registering a significant loss of support comfortably retained largest party status.

The centre-left Partido Socialista (PS), led by José Sócrates, was elected comfortably in 2005 – these followed a leadership crisis in the Partido Social Democrato (PSD) led centre-right coalition resulting from José Manuel Barroso’s elevation to President of the European Commission. A collapse in the PSD vote gave the PS an overall majority of 12. Sócrates has managed to lead a relatively popular government, despite unemployment that now stands at 9.1%; the PS has led in almost every opinion poll since taking office. The administration has concentrated heavily on infrastructural investment and educational reform, including increased financial support for students. It has also made a number of important steps forward in terms of social legislation – courageous in an overwhelmingly Catholic nation –  including the legalisation of same-sex marriages and the legalisation of abortion – this latter followed a referendum which approved legalisation but fell short of the 50% turnout required for the outcome to be binding.

Despite the economic woes and a number of government scandals (including questions over the validity of Sócrates’ own degree), the PSD as main opposition party has struggled to make any significant break through under the leadership of Manuella Ferreira Leite. Votes that splintered away from the PS have instead gone largely to smaller parties. In Sunday’s elections to Assembleia da República, this splintering was enough to deny Sócrates a second majority administration, with the PS losing 25 seats. However, with 96 seats, it remains the largest party but 17 short of a majority. Whilst it is clear that the PS will form the next government, it is unclear whether Sócrates will seek to do this as a minority government or in coalition. Perhaps the most likely partner would be the Bloco de Esquerda (BE – Left Block), a relatively new political grouping founded in 1999 which doubled its representation from 8 to 16 at the weekend. There has been a limited amount of co-operation between PS and BE in the previous parliament, notably over the introduction of domestic violence legislation. Whilst a PS-BE coalition would still be narrowly short of a majority, it could hope to survive through agreements with the Green-Communist alliance Coligação Democrática Unitária, whose 15 seats could make them an alternative or supplementary coalition partner. Overall, the left in all its forms makes up 127 seats in the 226 seat Assembleia (and 54.3% of the vote), hopefully securing the possibility of a full second term for Sócrates, only the PS’ second since the end of Portugal’s dictatorship. The PS’ success makes Iberia something of a strong-hold for the centre left in Europe, with the Spanish PSOE Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero (who had the difficult job of following Lord Mandelson in Brighton earlier today) now in his second term.

Summary of the Portuguese election results below:

Party Politics Vote share
Change from 2005 Seats Change from 2005
Partido Socialista Social Democrat 36.6% -8.4% 96 -25
Partido Social Democrata Centre-right populist 29.1% +0.3% 78 +3
Centro Democrático e Social – Partido Popular Christian democrat 10.5% +3.2% 21 +9
Bloco de Esquerda Socialist 9.9% +3.4% 16 +8
Coligação Democrática Unitária Communist/green alliance 7.9% +0.3% 15 +1


  1. So, Angela Merkel is still on the top. I would have prefered someone esle. I don’t know but I don’t like her politics much. Well let’s see what she does this time for the next 4 years.

    All the best.

    Comment by amanda kristina — September 28, 2009 @ 9:24 pm | Reply

  2. And now the PASOK have won in Greece…

    Comment by davecoledotorg — October 5, 2009 @ 9:00 am | Reply

  3. […] rewards from the continuing crisis of laissez-faire capitalism. The biggest story was, of course, the disastrous showing for the SPD in Germany, ending the grand coalition and ushering in (an already rather tarnished looking) right-wing […]

    Pingback by European Leftwatch: The year to come « Confessions of a Political Animal — January 13, 2010 @ 9:15 pm | Reply

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