Merkel Wins, Yet Germany Shifts to the Left

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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German voters can be romantic and adventurous at times. In 2009, they handed Guido Westerwelle, a flamboyant, openly gay lawyer who had unsuccessfully run for just about every type of political office, from school president to chancellor of Germany, his biggest victory ever -- a 14.6 share of the vote for his Free Democratic Party, and the post of vice-chancellor and foreign minister. A single electoral cycle later, the FDP was demolished, winning just 4.8 percent of the vote yesterday and failing to get into the Bundestag.

The party's failure means triumphant Chancellor Angela Merkel, who fell just five seats short of an extremely rare absolute majority, has some difficult coalition-building to do: The FDP was her preferred coalition partner, and had made little trouble for her in the last four years.

The FDP, a traditionally liberal party, has had its ups and downs since it was founded in 1948, but it has never been out of parliament and it was represented in German governments for at least 46 of the last 65 years. Westerwelle's triumph four years ago suggested it could finally become something more than an eternal junior coalition partner to Christian Democrats or Social Democrats, the two dominant political forces in Germany. Instead, it has become something less.

One could blame the party leadership's mistakes. Westerwelle was, by general consensus, a middling-to-poor foreign minister, and one eminent political scientist has evencalled him "the vainest, most narrow-minded and stubborn foreign minister since von Ribbentrop," a reference to Hitler's top diplomat. When he resigned as party leader in 2011 after the FDP's poor showing in some regional elections, Westerwelle was replaced by Philipp Roesler who, though a bright political prodigy, is Vietnamese-born. And while Germans are less anti-immigrant than many of their European neighbors, Roesler's Asian features made him an unlikely choice for the more conservative voters.

One could blame the eurosceptics of the new Alternative for Germany party, which appeared to siphon off some of the FDP's votes to build up a surprising 4.7 percent following.

One could, finally, blame Merkel's dominance. With her as the clear front-runner, there may have been no reason for moderate-right voters to support anyone else.

In the end, however, there may have been a deeper reason for the FDP's defeat. German politics have moved inexorably to the left in recent years, and the party has been left behind. A recent study by the Berlin Social Research Center (WZB), part of the ambitiousManifesto Project that studies party programs in dozens of countries, hasdocumented the shift. Both mainstream, centrist parties, Merkel's CDU/CSU and the Social Democrats, have gradually warmed toward heavier government interference in the economy and leftist values such as the welfare state and military disarmamament. "We can see that all parties -- except the FDP -- have moved to the left on the economic dimension compared to 2009," WZB noted in its report on the differences between party programs in the run-up to the 2013 Bundestag election.

The FDP, with its uncompromising free-market ideas and business-friendliness, began to irritate Germans. A 2010 scandal involving a $1.6 million party donation from a hotel company, apparently in exchange for pushing though a VAT cut on hotel room charges, did not help.

In a world where business self-interest is out of vogue, bankers are villains and free markets are blamed for destroying national economies, a party that so unabashedly believes in capitalism can hardly do well at the polls.

Despite the general shift to the left, Angela Merkel is still no Communist sympathizer. Neither her Christian Democrats nor the Social Democrats are willing to build a coalition with the Left Party, now the nation's third most popular, with 8.6 percent of the vote and a strong base in Germany's eastern regions. Yet Merkel grew up in East Germany, and she knows how to talk to left-leaning voters. When Germans' belief in free-market capitalism is shaken, Merkel does not have to be a leftist herself: It is enough for her to be everyone's soothing, calming Mutti.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net