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Party Politics in Germany

Voting has begun today in Germany, Europe’s largest economy and the most populous country in the EU. Between threats from Osama bin Laden, voter frustration with economic and foreign policy and a general sense that today’s voting will change little in the top leadership, turn-out is foreseen to be relatively low.

Germany usually has quite motivated voters – in the last Federal election in 2005, almost 78 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Earlier this year, however, the European Parliament elections — which, granted, usually attracts less interest — had a turn-out of just 43 percent.

The election campaign has been described as “boring, and the “Valium campaign,” while the much hyped television debate between Chancellor Merkel and the Social Democrats’ was regarded by the moderator as “more like a duet and less like a duel,” with the candidates of the two grand coalition parties agreeing with one another on nearly every subject.

With little movement in the pre-election polls and no major policy shifts occurring in the last week, the name of the game will be inter-party jockeying to find a seat at the governing coalition table, without breaking hard and fast rules of party interaction. Much like the goofy logic riddles from middle school math class, only a few possible endgames are possible at this point, depending the on final vote totals.

1A. Christian Democratic Union (CDU): The party of Chancellor Angela Merkel and half of the current governing coalition, the CDU has voter strongholds in the rural western portions of the country. The CDU is a leading center-right party in the European Parliament, along with regional sister party CSU.

– Prefers to coalition with the FDP. Will coalition with the SPD and the Greens if necessary. Refuses to join with The Left or any far-right parties.

1B. Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU): Bavaria is the largest of the sixteen German states in area and the second largest in population terms. Noted for its heavily Catholic and relatively conservative political culture, Bavaria has elected the CSU, which supports essentially the same party platform as the CDU, in nearly every major vote since 1957. The CSU is the most conservative mainstream party in Germany on social issues.

– Same coalition priorities as the CDU, as they operate as a unit at the Federal level, except that the CSU supports the Greens (the third strongest party in Bavaria) more than the CDU does.

2. Social Democratic Party (SPD): Focused in urban and cosmopolitan areas, and affiliated with the Party of European Socialists at the EU level, the SPD supports a mainstream center-left European platform of social democracy. Out of power from 1982 to 1998, the SPD led Germany from 1998 to 2005 under Chancellor Gerhard Schroder. In 2009, current foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is seeking the Chancellorship.

– Prefers to coalition with the Greens. Willing to join with the CDU/CSU, as it is currently, as well as with the FDP (such as the Willy Brandt SPD-FDP coalition of the 1970s). The SPD has a rocky relationship with The Left (Die Linke), which leaves this possibility as the real wild card. Not wanting to be painted as too far left, SPD has generally avoided joining with Die Linke, though at the city (e.g. Berlin) and state level, these unions have occurred. In part because Die Linke is so heavily based in the former GDR and in part because of SPD’s flirtations with The Left’s arch rival FDP, the relationship for 2009 has not been made clear.

3. Free Democratic Party (FDP): Free market oriented (European liberal) and commanding a small but significant place between the old West German main rivals, the FDP currently sits in opposition to the CDU/CSU-SPD government. Generally associated with the ideals that in the US are called libertarian, the FDP still supports generous government intervention in market failures and social support nets.

– Prefers to coalition with the CDU/CSU, though has joined with the SPD in the past. FDP has publicly declared that it will not join with the SPD, Greens in a 2009 coalition. They do not need to make such a declaration regarding The Left (something about hell freezing over?)

4. The Greens: The Green party in Germany is one of the strongest in Europe and has played a significant role in several governing coalitions since its establishment in the 1970s. Commanding a slightly smaller number of seats than the FDP, however, it was not able to play a power broker role in 2005.

– Prefers to coalition with the SPD. Willing to join the FDP and the Left. Refuses the CDU/CSU.

5. The Left: Finally, Die Linke is the party farthest left in Germany, enough so that they have been investigated by Federal authorities for links to “extremists.” The Left, which represents a fairly strong brand of the European communist ideology (in some ways similar to the French Communist Party, for example), enjoys strong support in the East, particularly among those who have seen their standing deteriorate since reunification. Die Linke is a relatively new party – a conglomeration of other lefty activists and parties, which has significant support, but not yet a serious governing track record.

– Would prefer to coalition with SPD and the Greens if allowed in. Refuses to join CDU/CSU or FDP.

There are basically three possible endgames, depending on the strength of the vote for the top few parties.

A. CDU/CSU and FDP: Preferred for the right, and looking possible but not likely. Merkel remains chancellor.

B. CDU/CSU and SPD: The status quo, with a possible reshuffling of the number of ministries allocated to each grand coalition partner. Merkel remains chancellor.

C. SPD, Greens and the Left: If the three left-side parties gain enough for a majority, and the SPD is willing to risk going into coalition with Die Linke, a center-left government is possible. But given the lack of experience of Die Linke, and the possible backlash at the state level and the next Federal election, this option may not be exercised. In addition, the Greens have been a volatile coalition partner on some issues, particularly the war in Afghanistan and the level of action on climate change. Even if the votes are there, getting the three parties in line might be a challenge.

Update: Merkel looks to be on track for a win, with the CDU/CSU and FDP pulling somewhere around 48%, which with district and overhang seats looks to be enough for a majority. Here is the geographic distribution of the vote.

Renard Sexton is FiveThirtyEight’s international columnist and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be contacted at