A postmortem of the 2005 German general elections

n 2002 the proposed war on Iraq was the one issue that had made it possible for Gerhard Schröder to win after trailing in the polls. In this years’ election campaign the central issue was the flat tax proposed by Paul Kirchhof, the Christian Democrats’ candidate for the Finance Ministry and former Judge at the Constitutional Court. While his personal plan was not identical with the Christian Democratic plans for tax reform, the Christian Democrats’ proposed policies for the next two election cycles would have come pretty close to a flat tax. Unfortunately their communication skills were sorely lacking, and they sent mixed messages to the public. This made it possible for Schröder to make the voters believe that a cold turkey implementation of the flat tax was imminent. He really sunk his teeth into this issue, time after time alluding disdainfully to Kirchhof as ‘that professor from Heidelberg whose plans have nothing to do with reality’, to the applause of his audiences. This hardball way of campaigning mobilized his party base once again, won most interest groups over to his side, and demoralized many of the Christian Democrats’ supporters. In Bavaria alone, 800,000 voters who had cast their ballots for the Christian Democrats in 2002 staid home this year.

Besides his aggressive, and much more effective campaigning style than that of his opposition, the circumstances also worked to Schröder’s advantage. The German tax system is arguably the most complicated in the world, and while this is a very good argument for tax reform, it also makes it very risky to talk about radical reform during an election campaign. The present system grants a myriad of tax exemptions and privileges to all kinds of groups, and for defenders of the status quo it is very easy to put a scare into people belonging to these groups, once somebody proposes reform. One of the excemptions which Schröder used to hammer Kirchhof most often about was the one for extra pay earned while working night shifts and weekends. Kirchhof wanted to abolish it, among many others, for the additional tax revenue for that measure would have made it possible to lower tax rates overall. Schröder, in fine demagogical form, claimed that nurses would be hit with higher taxes, so that doctors could benefit from lower tax rates, and that factory workers would subsidize their employers’ higher after-tax profits etc, etc, ad nauseam.

It might have been possible to convince the voters of the need for reform even so, but the necessarily abridged election campaign for the surprising reelections was yet another factor that favored Schröder. In such a brief period, complex issues cannot be possibly explained well enough to convince voters of the need for change. As it was he managed to focus his audiences’ attention on what they might lose, rather what they might gain from such changes. In the end enough voters who originally had wanted change badly decided to sit this election out, or to choose the devil they knew, so that the Social Democrats could make spectacular gains in the last couple of days before the elections.

And as mentioned above, besides the badly informed there were those who understood all too well what they have to lose. A lot of firms and wealthy individuals pay no taxes at all, for they know how to play the system, and how to get the most out of the various exemptions. Schröder’s smoke and mirrors game hid this fact from his voters, and besides, the tax authorities do all they can to keep their statistics opaque, so that those the system discriminates against don’t realize how unfair it really is.

I also had mentioned voter mobilization already. Both camps, Social Democrats and Greens on the one hand, and Christian Democrats and Free Democrats on the other, have mostly very loyal voters, so that voter mobilization, or lack of same, has so far been the decisive factor in German elections. Voters from former East Germany are much more flexible, and Western voters are gradually beginning to follow their example. Even so it will take some time before enough voters begin to change from one camp into the other on brief notice, and enough of them to cast their ballots for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons, to make a real difference.

Either way, fear of the flat tax served to mobilize Social Democratic voters and to demobilize many Christian Democratic voters this year, while in 2002, as also already mentioned, Schröder’s opposition against the war on Iraq and his anti-American rhetoric had rallied his disaffected party base around him. This message also had enjoyed a certain popularity with Christian Democratic supporters – the German Protestant churches are quite pacifist, while conservative Catholics in the South followed John Paul II.s anti-war line – but those among them who found it convincing simply staid at home. In the end, Schröder had won by just 6,000 votes, and with this tiny margin the flexible East German voters made the difference after all. Unfortunately I don’t have a English language link, but according to this website, the Social Democrats had gained 310,000 voters in 2002, compared to the elections 1998, from the East German communist ‘Party of Democratic Socialism’ (PDS). With deadlock in a multi-party system, the extreme fringes decide the outcome.

Looking at their respective performances in 2002 and 2005, both Stoiber and Merkel have proven themselves to be lousy campaigners, no matches for a rowdy demagogue like Schröder. In their focus on the issues they paled as politicians in direct comparison to him. On top of that Schröder also has a strong appeal for many female voters. They seem to find his craggy features and somewhat sonorous voice irresistible, and his occasional bad boy antics only serve to increase their affection for him. Merkel will have to learn a lot about campaigning and how not to turn off Catholics and female voters until the next elections, and she will have to do so in a hurry, for nobody knows how long this ‘grand coalition’ will last. She will also have to build her own, personal power base, something she is sorely lacking so far, for she is the first Chancellor who wasn’t previously a governor of a powerful state.

That leaves the fringe parties. ‘Die Linke’ as a hastily formed amalgam of the former East German communist party, various West German leftist groups and renegade Social Democrats received a dismaying 9.2 percent of the vote. Their program amounted to not much more than ‘ we only have to take it from the rich and we are all set’, and there seems to be a real market for this kind of thing, at least right now. The one bright spot are the low results for the far right and Neo Nazis: The National Democratic Party (NPD) only got 1.7 percent, and the ‘Republikaner’ 0.5 percent.

It remains to be seen how the coalition of Social and Christian Democrats will perform, so far they are still negotiating, and will continue to do so for at least three more weeks. The previous grand coalition in the late 1960’s had been quite successful, but then bother partners had put the interests of the country before their own, and there are strong doubts that the Social Democrats will be willing to do that this time around.

2 thoughts on “A postmortem of the 2005 German general elections”

  1. Thanks for the summary Ralf. It’s hard to get good analysis of the German elections in English speaking media.

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on why the Free Democrats did better than expectated while the CDU seemed to perform so disappointingly…

  2. It’s kind of complicated, so here’s a brief overview of the voting system first:

    German voters get two votes, one for their candidate of choice, and one for the party of choice.

    A party gets as many seats in parliaments as is proportional to its share of that second vote. That is, if a party receives 40 % of those second votes, it gets 40 % of the seats in parliament.
    If more of this party’s candidates get elected directly to parliament via the first vote, than it would get via its share of the seond votes, this party receives additional mandates, the so-called overhang mandates.

    Now, for a small party like the Free Democrats it is highly unusual to ever have a candidiate elected directly to parliament. It’s only way to get seats in the parliament are the second votes. The voters of the CDU know this, so if it looks doubtful that the Free Democrats, as the party they want to form a coalition with the CDU, will get enough of those second votes to make the 5 % hurdle, many will vote tactically, that is, give their first vote to CDU candidates, and give their second one to the Free Democratic party.

    That explains why many voters who usually would have voted for the CDU gave their vote to the Free Democrats. Besides their weak election campaign, that is the reason why the CDU got less, and the Free Democrats more than expected.

    I should add that until two days before the elections, when the last polls were taken, up to 30 % of all voters hadn’t made their mind up yet whom to vote for, or even if they would vote at all. So with this high margin of uncertainty, regular CDU voters had a better reason to vote tactically for the Fre Democrats than usual.

    If you want to know some more details about our election system you can find a primer here

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