Sep 232013

It’s been a bit of a nailbiter yesterday, and every single pundit in the country must be rubbing their bloodshot eyes. So it’s obviously not a brilliant idea to blog about it just now. But there seems to be a largish elephant in the room (not related to sleep deprivation) that nobody seems to have noticed so far.

A Historical Result

lonesome politician
FDP: Going Nowheremicagoto / Foter / CC BY-NC

Without doubt, this is a very exciting result that warrants a lot of superlatives or near-superlatives. Merkel’s Christian Democrats have bounced back from their second-worst result since 1949 to heights they have not seen since the highly unusual 1990 (re-unification) election. At 41.5 per cent, they came awfully close to an outright majority, something they have not achieved since 1957 (although then they had a much bigger share of the vote ).

The Social Democrats, on the other hand, have hardly recovered from their devastating 2009 result. 25.7 per cent is still the second-worst result since the war. But the combined vote share of the two major parties – often described as ‘former major parties’ by pundits – has gone up for the first time since 2002.

Both the Greens (at some stage projected to garner 15 per cent) and the Left have lost more than 20 per cent of their support compared to their 2009 results, and for the first time since 1990, the number of parties in parliament has gone down. And that is of course because the FDP has gone from 14.6 per cent (their best result ever) to 4.8 per cent (their worst result ever) and is not represented in parliament for the first time since 1949.

To put this in perspective, let me remind you that during the 64 years, the FDP was not holding government positions only from 1956 to 1961, from 1966 to 1969, and from 1998 to 2009. In other words, they were in government for roughly 70 per cent of the time, usually holding key positions (Foreign Affairs, Economy, Justice) and punching far above their electoral weight. For most German Politics aficionados, it will take some time to get used to the idea of them not having a national presence. Moreover, their result, combined with the relatively strong showing of the AfD means that the number of wasted votes must be near its all time high, with proportionality going out of the window.

But there is something else.

The Coalition Could Have Had a Viable Majority in Parliament

In the past, the FDP has survived (and some times thrived) on a diet of tactical considerations. Their loyal supporters are few and far between, but often, supporters of the CDU would give them with their list votes to bring about a centre-right majority. Most of the time, the CDU would not openly encourage this behaviour but would also refrain from discouraging it. Sometimes, the two parties even came up with joint position papers for future governments, signalling that they were not exactly a pre-electoral alliance but very much part of the same camp.

But this year (following the FDP’s defeat in Bavaria only a week before the General election), the CDU sent out a clear, high-profile “everyone for themselves” message to their voters. I can see three reasons for that. First, recent electoral reforms designed to make the system more proportional mean that the CDU would not benefit from a by-product of tactical CDU/FDP voting, the so-called ‘surplus seats’. Second, the ‘loan vote’ strategy has recently backfired in Lower Saxony, leaving a weakened CDU on the opposition benches. Third, the CDU may well have anticipated a Grand Coalition after Bavaria, and in that case, bolstering the FDP would not have made sense.

But this was probably a self-fulfilling prophecy. Though it looked very close yesterday night, Merkel did not win an outright majority. Christian Democrats and FDP together, on the other hand, are stronger than the three left parties combined: 46.3 vs 42.7 per cent. That would have been enough for Merkel to continue the centre-right coalition (her preference), with the added benefit of having a much more docile, dependent partner.

Negotiating a coalition with the Social Democrats will be tough. The party is licking its wounds and is highly reluctant to enter such an arrangement after the 2009 disaster that followed their last co-operation with the Christian Democrats. A CDU/Green coalition, while arithmetically feasible, seems highly unlikely at the moment, so the SPD will try to extract a large premium from the Christian Democrats for going into government with them. In the end, coalition talks could fail, and Germany could go to the polls again.

Without doubt, this result is a great triumph for Merkel. But I think the CDU leadership may have outwitted themselves, and the stern, slightly grumpy expression Merkel wore as she left the celebrations seems to confirm it.

Feb 092013

In case you hadn’t noticed, we are truly living in a world of 24/7 news, although days are a bit shorter over here in Germany, and we tend to shut the country down for the weekend (the unions, you know). Nonetheless, the Chancellor (just returned from Brussels) and the minister (just returned from South Africa) appeared in front of the press on this very Saturday afternoon to announce that the minister is resigning over allegations of plagiarism in her PhD thesis. The chancellor even presented a successor, Johanna Wanka (anglophones, no snickering please), who will take over next week.

Schavan is already the second minister that Merkel lost over scientific conduct, the first being former Defence Minister zu Guttenberg. But the differences with the zu Guttenberg case are instructive. Zu Guttenberg had risen to prominence within a very short time. He was ambitious, allegedly charismatic and very good at promoting himself.

More to the point, he needed a special permit to be accepted as a PhD student because of his low GPA, and his “thesis” was nothing but a collage of material that was in parts presumably taken straight off the internet. Unquoted sources included newspaper articles and legal opinions compiled by the Bundestag’s scientific services at zu Guttenberg’s request. GuttenbergPlag, a collaborative website dedicated to the former minister’s thesis, documented instances of plagiarism on more than 90% of its pages. He was even prosecuted (though not formally charged and sentenced, because he agreed to pay a hefty fine) for copyright infringement. Did I mention that zu Guttenberg’s family donated large sums of money to his alma mater?

Schavan’s thesis, on the other hand, seems to lack synthesis and originality, but from what you can see on schavanplag, her offences are clearly less outrageous than zu Guttenberg’s. Combine that with the fact that she did her political job quietly and mostly competently for many years, and with the fact that she wrote this thesis back in the 1970s, and you see why even many in the opposition feel sorry for her.

And yet there was no doubt that she had to go for reasons of representation and (lack of) trust: You don’t necessarily need a scientist as minister for science and education, but you cannot have person in that job who has been stripped of her academic merits by the system, even if that ruling might be out of proportion and could still be overturned by a court. Her intention to sue Düsseldorf U left German academia divided against itself during this week.  Schavan  said something to that effect  in her brief resignation statement, and I must applaud her for that.

More specifically,  it would have been more than awkward had the minister been forced to explain to university grandees that she had to withdraw  federal funds from this or that institution because it does not meet the highest scientific standards. Stepping down at the earliest occasion is a rare display of political judgement.

Much has been written about the political fallout for Merkel, who faces a difficult General Election (are there any others?) in seven months time, but I don’t think this whole affair will have much of an impact. Schavan may be a close friend and personal ally of the Chancellor, but the matter was quickly resolved. More depressingly, science and education are niche interests in Germany, and Schavan’s name recognition outside academia was low before the affair broke. Much the same will be true for her successor (again, please don’t snicker).