A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Writing on the Wall

In Austria, Germany’s political parties catch an awful glimpse of the future.

On April 24, both the Christian Democratic and the Social Democratic candidates for the Austrian presidency were humiliatingly defeated. The country’s traditional party system is clearly eroding – and in neighboring Germany, a similar political system is caught in a similar decline.


© REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler

With the exception of Kurt Waldheim’s in 1986 – which raised questions about the former UN Secretary General’s activities during World War II – presidential campaigns in Austria have never received much attention. In this country of nine million people, the presidency is an almost entirely ceremonial office. Yet the first round of presidential elections caused a political earthquake that is being felt far beyond Austria’s borders.

Indeed, in neighboring Germany, a country with a very similar political system, the establishment is catching a horrifying glimpse of its own fate. Here as in Austria, the post-World War II party system is facing fragmentation. While German Chancellor Angela Merkel still enjoys immense personal popularity, the writing is on the wall for the parties that make up her government.

So what happened in Austria? On April 24, for the first time since the end of World War II, neither the Social Democratic nor the Christian Democratic candidate got into the second round. These two parties, which used to collect about 80 percent of the vote in presidential elections, now only received 22 percent – combined.

The winner of the first round was Norbert Hofer (45), a rightwing populist who had campaigned on an anti-Islam platform. In the run-off, he will be facing Alexander van der Bellen (72) from the Greens, a retired economics professor. Neither the Christian Democratic nor the Social Democratic candidate even came in third. That place was taken by a former judge, a political newcomer who privately raised €900,000 for her campaign.

Austrian voters were clearly dissatisfied with the coalition government of Social Democrats and Christian Democrats and their squabbles. They are also worried about the country’s economic development and – most importantly – angry about the government’s refugee policy, which radically shifted within six months from opening the country’s doors to closing off its borders. This particularly benefited Hofer’s Freedom Party.

A Systemic Crisis

“Good God, it’s a fiasco,” said Günther Platter, head of the regional government in Tirol and a member of Austria’s People’s Party, the country’s Christian Democratic party. “We are in a systemic crisis,” added Christoph Neumayer, the head of the country’s powerful Industry Federation.

For more than 70 years, ÖVP and SPÖ have shared the spoils of power in Austria. Blacks or Reds, as they are known, have led every postwar government. Good jobs in the state sector, public broadcasting, the trade unions, and every state agency and publicly held company, were divided up between their followers.

Voters have had enough of this. Their dissatisfaction has shrunk both the Reds and the Blacks, forcing them together into ever more unpopular “grand coalitions”. Even together, both parties amounted to only about 50 percent of the vote in the last parliamentary election in 2013.

In Germany, the trend is pointing the same way. Decline first hit the Social Democrats (SPD). From more than 40 percent of the vote in 1998, they are down to around 22 percent in the polls now. Merkel’s conservative bloc has been more resilient, but it is also declining. After achieving 41.5 percent at the last Bundestag elections in 2013, it now stands at about 33 percent in the polls.

On the left, it was SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s policy of social and labor market reform that tore apart the Social Democrats and encouraged the rise of the populist Left Party. On the right, Chancellor Merkel is now facing a very similar development with the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). This rightwing populist party – very similar to Hofer’s Freedom Party – agreed on its first, stridently anti-Islamic party program at a party congress on May 1.

Conservatism Transformed

Merkel has led the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) for an incredible 16 years; during that time, she transformed Helmut Kohl’s staid, conservative party into a modern, centrist, urban movement. The CDU abolished conscription, modernized family policy, gave gays nearly equal rights, and decided to end nuclear power. Most recently, it was Merkel who welcomed the refugees to Germany and got the CDU to adopt the slogan “Islam is part of Germany.”

For the longest time, her enormous personal popularity concealed the fact that her policies actually opened up a vacuum to the right. But now, Merkel’s critics mutter about how she broke with the wisdom handed down by Franz-Josef Strauß, a wily, power-conscious conservative who had enormous influence over West Germany’s politics in the 1960s and 70s.

“There cannot be any democratically legitimated party to the right of the CSU (the CDU’s Bavarian sister party),” Strauß declared in 1986. In this spirit, both the CDU and the CSU for many years took great care to represent enough rightwing positions – that is, until Merkel began her radical overhaul of German conservatism.

From Three-and-a-Half to Six

In 1986, Germany was essentially still run by three parties – the conservative bloc, the Social Democrats and the small Liberal party. The Greens had only just appeared. Now, three decades later, add the Left Party and the Alternative für Deutschland, and you have an untidy, unstable six-party system which is beginning to make it very difficult to form governments.

The spate of regional elections in the spring ended up with a series of coalitions involving Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, and Greens, who are almost exclusively allied by the desire to keep the AfD out of power. While popular heads of regional government can do quite well under such circumstances, the minority partners in government generally suffer, shrinking the number of coalition options for the future even more.

It is a situation that many Germans are profoundly uneasy about. Collective memory here is still deeply scarred by the political instability of the Weimar Republic with its plethora of small parties. It is this experience that made West Germany’s founding fathers introduce a five-percent threshold for any party wanting to enter the Bundestag. This threshold still stands, but now seems powerless to stop the system’s fragmentation.

Add to that another effect of Germany’s electoral laws: small parties – and this is what all the German political groups are turning into – have few incentives to present parliamentary candidates with broad political appeal and charisma. They will rarely manage to get any of their own elected directly anyway.

So what matters most in elections are the lists that the party as a whole present. To get in at the top of the list, you need to be good at your party’s power games. But such a selection is bound to produce a very different set of politicians, one that is likely to produce even more disenchantment with the political class.

Of course, it is far from certain that the AfD will continue its rise. With the refugee issue receding and the party caught up in internal quarrels, it is dropping in the polls. Yet voters aren’t turning back into the loyal, steady supporters of just one party that they were in the early post-war decades. Germany’s politicians – including Angela Merkel – are well advised to pay close attention to the writing on the wall.