Germany's Small Party Race Is the Bigger Ticket

A relative unknown could determine the shape of the next government.

Germany's real debate.

Photographer: JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

The upcoming German election's major contest -- the one between Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats and Martin Schulz's Social Democrats -- has been marked by an absence of intrigue and suspense. The same doesn't apply to the heated contest among the smaller parties that are vying for third place. Unlike the two main parties, they are in a real head-to-head race whose outcome may determine the shape of the next government. 

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Monday's debates among the leaders of these smaller parties -- the left-wing Die Linke, the Greens, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, the liberal Free Democratic Party and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) -- showed that the options for a workable ruling coalition after the election are extremely limited. On the surface, this lineup resembled the debates U.S. networks ran among the less popular Republican candidates during last year's presidential primary season -- a spectacle for political junkies featuring colorful politicians without a chance at real power. But in 2017 Germany, the smaller parties are not a sideshow. 

An INSA poll published on Monday, after the main, sleep-inducing debate between Merkel and Schulz, showed both of the main parties down slightly compared with the previous poll, conducted in late August, losing points to the FDP and the AfD. Without reading too much into these fluctuations, one can still see how Merkel's safe, lulling, lackluster campaigning style may irritate some voters who want to see politicians take stronger positions and slug it out as they do in other countries. 

The smaller parties inhabit a different Germany than the relatively complacent one of Merkel and Schulz. It's not the "Germany in which we live well and like living" to which Merkel's campaign slogan appeals but a much smaller (40 percent of the German voters), bitterly divided nation that is actively unhappy with the way it's governed. Fighting for votes in it is more like contesting a free-for-all Dutch election than an orderly German one, and it requires different skills and energy levels. So on Monday, there were plenty of altercations and dramatic personal dynamics for the viewers to gnaw on.

Die Linke's Sahra Wagenknecht and the AfD's Alice Weidel went at each other over immigration; at one point, the AfD candidate tried to damn her adversary with faint praise, calling her "the only reasonable person in her party," but Wagenknecht threw it right back: "You could say that about yourself." The FDP's Christian Lindner and the Greens' Cem Oezdemir clashed loudly over U.S. nuclear weapons, which the Greens want out of Germany and the FDP considers essential for security. With the anchors maintaining a brisk tempo, the "Five-Way Fight" was a superb spectacle, up there with the best U.S. and French examples of the art. On the social networks, comparisons with the Merkel-Schulz snoozefest were overwhelmingly in favor of the "Five-Way Fight." 

But it's Merkel who will most likely form the next German government, and nothing can stop Schulz's party from taking second place. So the more entertaining -- and perhaps more principled and less compromise-prone -- politicians are confined to the role of potential kingmakers. 

The AfD is the exception. No other German party will touch it with a barge pole because some of its prominent members are Holocaust deniers. It's only in the game for its own sake: The better it performs, the tougher on immigration the next centrist government will have to be, something Dutch nationalists have taught European neighbors.

But the others are coalition contenders. If Schulz wins over 30 percent -- a stretch given current poll results -- he might just put together a government with Die Linke and the Greens (they both need to improve on their current poll showing, too, to make that possible). Merkel would like to work with the FDP, as her party has traditionally done, but a two-way coalition would need both, especially the FDP, to put on a much stronger performance on election day than in the current polls. A three-way configuration with the FDP and the Greens, however, looks immediately workable as far as the numbers go.

The problem with the arithmetic is that it's abstract. Based on the content of the debate and the fundamental disagreements it revealed, it's hard to imagine the Greens doing a deal with the FDP, the Merkel allies of the CSU or even Die Linke. Bringing Lindner and Oezdemir together to negotiate a coalition agreement is a task that would overtax even Merkel, with her talent for bringing about unusual compromises. Both Oezdemir and Wagenknecht showed themselves as too radical for meaningful negotiations with Schulz. Since the smaller parties are fighting it out in a divided nation, they are driven to the extremes of their positions. That makes it harder to retreat post-election and play the traditional coalition game.

While the German election is boring to outside watchers because of the lack of a central conflict, its aftermath may turn out to be more exciting. Christian Obendahl of the London-based Center for European Reform has argued that a Merkel-led minority government is a realistic scenario. It would, he wrote, be better for German democracy than another bland "grand coalition" between the CDU and the Social Democrats because Merkel would need to work with the different opposition parties on specific issues. 

Germany has never had a federal minority government, and such an experiment would be exciting to watch. At the very least, it would allow the smaller parties to show their strengths and weaknesses to voters in a high-stakes, four-year political game. It's hard, however, to imagine Merkel wanting to play this game in what may be her last term in power. She may use the threat of a minority government in coalition talks with Schulz, but she will want to extend the current, safe, boring alliance.

If she fails at that, German politics will be a lot of fun to watch and the next election may end up a lot more open and less predictable than the current one. The divided nation, relatively small as it is, will then prevail.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Leonid Bershidsky at

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    Therese Raphael at

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