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October 16, 2018

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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.

Our other stories

We also have stories on the UK taking the lead on EU action against novel security threats; on the prospects of a Brexit deal or otherwise; on whether Ireland will go to snap elections; on the uncertainty around Spain's draft budget; on Portugal's made-for-purpose budget as elections loom; and on liquidity in bank resolution.

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