Obama calls German election but Merkel knows he’s got it wrong

August 6, 2009

Barack Obama might have unrivalled expertise about the U.S. electorate. But the American president showed he’s something of a fish out of water when it comes to the complex world of German politics — where the seeming winners sometimes end up losing and the losers can end up in power with the right alliance.

Obama recently told Germany’s conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel to stop worrying about the Sept. 27 election: “Ah, you’ve already won. I don’t know what you always worry about,” Obama told her in comments captured by a German TV camera at the White House as the two were on their way to a joint news conference.

Merkel looked surprised by his comments — she knows that she doesn’t have anything in the bag yet — even with what might appear to outsiders to be a comfortable 12- to 17-point lead in opinion polls over her main rivals, the Social Democrats, with just 7 weeks left before the election.

Why is that?

Because under Germany’s “fiendishly complex proportional system” , Merkel’s conservatives could beat her rival Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s SPD and still end up without the centre-right coalition they want — or even more dramatically they could win the vote but end up losing power completely.

Due to Germany’s proportional voting system and the awkward arithmetic of coalition governments, it’s already happened in three of the 16 post-war elections that the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) actually won the election but still ended up in opposition (1969, 1976 and 1980) — because the SPD and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) formed coalitions despite finishing well behind the CDU/CSU. The SPD has only finished first in 3 of the 16 post-war elections (1972, 1998 and 2002) but taken hold of the chancellery six times.

In 1976, the CDU/CSU nearly won an outright majority in a three-party parliament with 48.2 percent while the SPD was a full six points behind at 42.2 percent. But the SPD still took the chancellery, thanks to their forming a coalition with FDP who won 7.9 percent. Even if the SPD finish a distant second to the CDU/CSU in September, they are harbouring hopes of forming a three-way coalition in the six-party parliament with the Greens and FDP — two smaller opposition parties that have been pining to get back into power. Those three are currently polling in a range of 47-50 percent.

The CDU/CSU are projected to win about 36 percent of the vote, similar to their 2005 total of 35.2 percent. They will thus need a coalition partner to form a majority and their preferred partners, the FDP are polling 14 percent. That would give them 50 percent and a slim majority in parliament.

But in light of the breathtaking collapse of support for the CDU/CSU in the last two elections, it’s understandable Merkel’s conservatives are not nearly as sanguine about their chances as Obama appears to be.

The CDU/CSU lost what seemed to be a sure victory and a 7-point lead in 2002 in the final four weeks of the campaign to end up just behind the SPD and stuck in opposition. And then in 2005 they lost an even bigger lead, squandering a 19-point advantage in the final two months, to end up just just one point ahead of the SPD. Four years ago, that late stumble forced them to abandon their preferred partners, the FDP, and get into bed with their arch enemies, the SPD in a grand coalition.

Could that kind of collapse happen again? Probably not, according to pollsters who note the SPD candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier is not of the same calibre and experience as Gerhard Schroeder. But will the CDU/CSU win enough to form a coalition with the FDP? That’s still wide open.

Most pollsters say it is far too close to call whether Merkel will have enough to win the centre-right coalition she wants. They note the CDU/CSU and FDP have pretty much tapped their total pool of voters at a combined total of about 50 percent — any rise in CDU/CSU numbers would thus likely come at the expense of the FDP total and vice-versa. But pollsters say the SPD, languishing in the depths of around 23 percent, have a potential to rise closer to their 2005 score of 34.2 percent if they are able to mobilise the millions of traditional left-leaning voters.

At the moment SPD, Greens and Left party have a combined total of about 46-47 percent. So Merkel’s lead for the centre-right coalition she wants is not the 17 point advantage of the SPD but rather just 3-4 points ahead of the three left-leaning parties she hopes to beat into opposition (SPD, Greens and Left party).

Should the CDU/CSU and FDP fall short of a majority — they will probably need to win at least 47 percent of the vote for that — all bets are off. The FDP has pointedly kept the option open this time of forming an alliance with the SPD and Greens after ruling that out in 2005. The three-way SPD-Greens-FDP option is not considered likely at this point even though it has been tried at the state level twice. But it’s a possibility — especially because the FDP has been in opposition since 1998 and are eager to get back into government after spending most of the country’s first five decades in power with either the CDU/CSU or the SPD.

PHOTO:U.S. President Barack Obama (L) follows German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the podium area before their news conference in the East Room at the White House in Washington, June 26, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Young

6 comments

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Could it also have something to do with a better ability to think about the issues and not just respond to the hoopla or to have your voting preference tattooed on you at birth?

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive

He still hasn’t learned to “know the facts” before he speaks. This is getting wearisomely repetitive.

Posted by Patrick E. | Report as abusive

Pretty funny that you call the math of proportional representation “complex.” In fact, if you can count to 100, it’s simple.For instance, you write: “In 1976, the CDU/CSU nearly won an outright majority in a three-party parliament with 48.2 percent while the SPD was a full six points behind at 42.2 percent. But the SPD still took the chancellery, thanks to their forming a coalition with FDP who won 7.9 percent.”When you put the FDP with the SPD, it’s combined vote is 49.9%, a comfortable 1.7% ahead of the CDU/CSU. So yes, it won because, shockingly, it had more support. Hardly complex at all.

Posted by JB | Report as abusive

Hi JB, thanks for writing. But I think you misunderstood the point. Here’s another recent post about “overhang mandates” that illustrates how comlicated German elections can be — http://blogs.reuters.com/global/2009/07/ 01/will-germany-tamper-with-election-law -before-vote/

Posted by Erik Kirschbaum | Report as abusive

Ok – the author has missed the point entirely about proportional representation. And, it’s not that complex. Who ever gets to numbers to form a government with 50% or more has won the election. It wouldn’t matter if Party X got 49% and Party’s Y and Z form a coalition with 25 and 26% respectively – they win because more voters voted for them, than the others. Simple.As an aside, Obama shouldn’t meddle in foreign elections. Personal side comments can be made in the Oval Office with no officials and media – it’s just amatuer to make to do it it that environment.

Posted by Sonny Thomas | Report as abusive

Hi Sonny. Proportional representation may not, as you note, be complex per se but in Germany it is unfortunately complicated for a number of reasons: If two or more parties get 47 pct or perhaps even 46 pct, they will have enough for a majority in parliament (because parties getting less than 5 pct are not allowed any seats at all). Making that more complicated is the “overhang mandate” element in Germany — parties can get up to 20 extra seats this way. People get two (2) votes in Germany — one for the candidate running for the direct mandate and a second vote for the party. The candidate in a district that wins the most votes get the direct mandate (first past the post). But the 2nd vote determines the size of a party’s proportional representation in parliament. So some people give their 1st vote (direct mandate) to, say, a CDU candidate and then cast their 2nd ballot for a party, say FDP. If the CDU then wins MORE direct mandates in a state than they are entitled to based upon the percentage of the vote won in that state, they get EXTRA seats (“overhang mandates”). Some political scientists are predicting the CDU/CSU could win a record 24 such “overhang mandates” this year …. which in theory might mean the CDU/CSU and FDP could win a majority in parliament with just 45 or perhaps even 44 percent of the vote. After the Nazi era, Germany deliberately built in a lot of such safeguards to prevent the possibility of another Hitler. Here’s an insightful story from the Financial Times recently: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/7ae4d7f6-8157- 11de-92e7-00144feabdc0.html

Posted by Erik Kirschbaum | Report as abusive

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