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October 16, 2018

The days of the grand coalition are numbered

The Bavarian election story is a different one than commentators expected. The debate the day after is not about the future of Markus Soder and Horst Seehofer. They are both secure for now. It is about the future of the federal grand coalition, and of the SPD specifically. It is also about the spectacular success of the Greens. Sueddeutsche Zeitung’s day-two front page headline is about Munich turning into a Green metropolis. 

The absolute number of CSU voters has only fallen marginally compared to 2014, but their vote share dropped because of the higher participation. The SPD’s support on the other hand collapsed beyond redemption, both in relative and absolute terms. This will have important implications for the grand coalition.

The next date to watch out is the October 28 election in the state of Hesse, where a relatively popular SPD candidate hopes to unseat the CDU incumbent prime minister, Volker Bouffier. It should be a better result than in Bavaria - but it is the gap between expectations and reality that will matter in Hesse as well. And don’t underestimate the uplift the Greens received from the Bavarian election. They are now the cool party of the left. 

FAZ notes that behind the SPD’s Bavarian result of just under 10% lies the party’s virtual elimination in whole areas of rural Bavaria, like the upper Bavarian regions around the Alps. These were never SPD strongholds, but at least the SPD used to be the main opposition party. The SPD has more support in the east of Bavaria, around Regensburg, and in the cities, but even there it is behind the Greens and the CSU.

The SPD is currently too depressed to discuss its future. Ralf Stegner, the deputy leader, said something really important would have to change in Berlin for the grand coalition to continue. We always regarded Stegner as the swing vote in the party’s leadership. Like Martin Schulz he was originally against taking part in a grand coalition, but was one of the early switchers. Is he switching back? 

We normally don’t quote the hyper-conservative Heike Göbel from FAZ, but find that her social-economic analysis of the Bavarian election results was spot-on. Her bottom line is that the SPD is being crowded out by another social-democratic party, the CDU/CSU. Some of the CSU’s erstwhile supporters have been migrating to other parties - in Bavaria’s case the AfD and the Freie Wahler, a small centrist party that will now enter into a coalition with the CSU. The problem, she points out, is that the SPD is focusing on the wrong subject - its competence in social policy. That clashes with the perceived reality of the country. The SPD has been a government party for a long time. Germany’s social reality is well known to voters. The SPD cannot dissociate itself from social problems such as a lack of housing. She quoted a Bavarian poll that shows that the SPD managed a poll rating of only 30% in its core competence of social justice, while the Greens got 70% on the environment. 

We note that the decision to form yet another grand coalition has dramatically accelerated the party’s secular decline. Unless the Greens self-destruct, the CDU/CSU moves to the right, or the SPD itself turns to the left and manages to usurp the Left Party, we see no solution to this. The Greens, the SPD, and the Left together make up the space of the political left - in that order. Demography favours the Greens in the medium term, and the Left in the long run. According to a socio-demographic analysis of Germany’s political parties, the share of SPD members who are over 60 years is 54%. The equivalent percentage for the Greens is 24%. The percentage of under-30 year olds are a mere 8% for the SPD, compared to 14% for the Left Party. The SPD’s membership is old. The Greens are supported the 30-60 year olds while the Left Party is strong among the very young and the very old.

Unless the SPD manages to find a new political niche - which it can do only in opposition - its share of the vote will continue to decline. That, plus the sectoral decline of the CDU/CSU, implies the end of the grand coalition. The longer the current grand coalition hangs on, the faster the rate of decline.

Much of the political uncertainty in Europe is perceived to be the result of Brexit and Italian politics. Germany could become a source of political instability faster than many people realise.

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October 16, 2018

Towards a Brexit deal after all?

Theresa May’s statement was not the flags and fireworks speech some people had been led to expect. It was surprisingly low key. She resisted pressure to demand a specific end date for the Irish backstop provisions, which would have killed the deal outright. The technical negotiations went as far as they could. The Irish backstop is ultimately a matter for the leaders. Our central expectation for tomorrow's meeting of EU leaders is an approximation - no final deal, but not a Salzburg-style disaster either. We agree with Leo Varadkar that the most likely time for a deal is now November or even December. We have argued that the only chance May has to secure a parliamentary majority for a deal is to eradicate false third choices. At the moment, MPs on both sides of the debate are vowing to reject the deal May is working for, because they believe they can get something better. As we approach the deadline, these multiple delusions should disappear.

With a hat tip to Sebastian Payne of the FT, we note a curious promise May made in her statement yesterday, which may be indicative of her tactics. If the talks collapse, she said, MPs will have the opportunity to vote against a no-deal Brexit. Is she threatening her own eurosceptic MPs with a second referendum? 

Readers might recall that the so-called meaningful-vote amendment was defeated, and replaced by a so-called neutral vote in case there is no deal. Under this process, the House would have no right to force the government into action. But what would the government do if the House of Commons supported the idea of a second referendum? Is it possible that May would then support it, too? We can’t be sure. Nor can we be sure that the EU would accept an extension of the Article 50 process by the required unanimity, merely on the promise of a future referendum which may not take place for another year. At that point, the UK parliament will only just have started the debate on the referendum questions. We remain doubtful that this is a viable scenario, but we would not rule out early elections, or a Tory leadership contest.

The Times columnist, Rachel Sylvester, argues that there is no hope for May: there is no majority for whatever deal she comes home with. And, if there is no deal, ministers might force her to accept a second referendum.

We find there is something admirable in May’s cold blood. We don’t count her out yet. But the situation is serious.

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October 16, 2018

To vote or not to vote, that is the Irish question

Leo Varadkar faces one of the toughest decisions in his time as Irish prime minister. Shall Fine Gael continue as a minority government, relying on the uncomfortable support of the main opposition party Fianna Fáil, or call snap elections? Currently, Varadkar and Fianna Fáil's party leader Micheál Martin are engaged in talks about whether or not they should extend the agreement that underpins the Fine Gael minority government with the support of Fianna Fail in parliament. This agreement is due to expire once the 2019 budget is approved. Both parties are less than enthusiastic about continuing, to put it mildly. Fine Gael is tired of being on the leash, and Fianna Fáil finds no joy in playing second fiddle.

What are the chances? The latest polls suggest that Fine Gael has an 8pp lead over Fianna Fail, which if translated into an election victory would give them the required majority to run the government on their own. But there are risks too. First, polls don't always reflect what would actually happen once the Irish go to vote. In the last elections, Fianna Fáil caught up once on the campaign trail. The other big unknown is the support for Sinn Féin. In 2014 Sinn Féin polled at 24% but they only got 14% in the 2016 elections. Now they are back at 24% in the polls. The third big group, an umbrella of independents and small parties, slipped further in the polls down to 14%, which is less than half of the 30% they received at the last election. None of the smaller parties get above 3%; even the Greens, popular elsewhere in Europe, are stuck at 2%. The Labour party, meanwhile, shows no sign of recovery and is hovering around 4%.

So, will new elections happen? Voters are divided over whether they want the two parties to continue or to have new elections. According to polls, voters are certainly unenthusiastic about the 2019 budget, which focuses on raising expenditure rather than cutting taxes. The most significant obstacle is Brexit. In a climate of utter uncertainty it seems reckless for either of the two leaders to prompt elections. Voters, however, seem to be much more relaxed about it. Rarely has the political future in Ireland looked as unpredictable as it does now, concludes the Irish Times.

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