Oct 042021

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that the ur-podcast must have been two blokes in the pub going on about politics for hours. Thankfully, the format has evolved somewhat. So if you are interested in German Politics, why not listen to Cas Mudde and me discussing the 2021 elections in just over 30 minutes?

I was much younger in this photo. He probably found it in a museum.

Oct 032021
Germany's next government could be the most secular in decades 1

A week ago, Germany’s alliance of Christian Democratic parties posted its worst national election result ever: they lost nine points on their (already pretty disappointing) 2017 result. For what it’s worth, these results are in line with a long-term downward trend that was briefly reversed in the 2005 and 2009 elections.

Germany's next government could be the most secular in decades 2
CDU/CSU vote share in Bundestag elections 1949-2021

The Social Democrats emerged as the election’s big winner, partly because they improved on their abysmal 2017 result and emerged as the biggest party, but also because for a long time, the polls had suggested that they would fall well below 20 per cent. But from a historical perspective, their result is pretty weak. All this is hardly surprising, because party identification, or at least identification with the former main parties, has been in decline for a long, long time.

Germany's next government could be the most secular in decades 3
SPD vote share in Bundestag elections 1949-2021

Because no-one wants to form a coalition with the AfD, and because the Left is almost as isolated and moreover to weak to be a necessary part of a coalition, that leaves us with three options: the “traffic light” (SPD, Greens, FDP) and “Jamaica” (CDU, Greens, FDP) coalitions, and a reversed “Grand Coalition” (SPD/CDU). The latter has some limited use as leverage for the bigger parties and insurance against minority government and fresh elections, but is deeply unpopular with voters and also the respective parties.

Jamaica looked like a non-starter on election night and has become even less likely: the CDU (and to a much lesser degree the CSU) is in disarray, fighting over its leadership and future course. This would make them a very awkward partner for the smaller parties. Moreover, in the days after the election, the discourse has focused on the SPD winning and the CDU losing the election. Laschet, the CDU/CSU’s candidate for the chancellorship, always had terrible ratings and is widely seen as one important factor contributing to the Christian Democrats’ disaster. Installing him in the chancellery would hardly chime with the Greens’ and FDP’s message of reform and modernisation.

The most likely result of this is the “traffic light”, which would be Germany’s most secular coalition since (probably) the 1970s. Why is this? While this may change in the future, Germany is currently a typical “religious world” country, where conflict over the role of religion in public life is reflected in the structure of the party system. The name of Germany’s dominant party gives a strong hint: the religious/secular cleavage is embodied in the CDU/CSU. And this is not just tradition and the proverbial “C” in their name: At least in the 2009-13 Bundestag, MPs for the Christian Democrats had a surprisingly large number of affiliations with religious groups and institutions. However, the Greens scored almost as high on this measure.

Partymean number of affiliations
Number of religious affiliations per MP in the 2009-13 Bundestag

An analysis of the crucial free vote that legalised Preimplantation Genetic Testing in Germany shows that even after controlling for these remarkable differences, MPs for the SPD and particularly the FDP were much more likely to support legalisation. This is in line with secular traditions in both parties. The FDP in particular has consistently voted for more liberal (again, the hint is in the name) bioethical rules.

On the other hand, the voting behaviour of Green MPs did not differ significantly from that of their CDU counterparts.1 Again, this is not terribly surprising: while the Greens are by and large a left-libertarian outfit, Christian movements for peace and the protection of the environment are part of their heritage. Winfried Kretschmann, their only Minister President, is a devout Catholic who runs a coalition with the CDU and likes to stress that they operate on a base of common values. The long-standing leader of their parliamentary party, Katrin Göring-Eckardt, studied theology (although she never graduated) and was the top lay person involved in the leadership of Germany’s Protestant Church as president of its synod from 2009-13. She also is in favour of compulsory religious education in schools and supports the (remaining) exemptions from workers’ rights for church-run hospitals, care-homes and kindergartens.

Of course, the numbers above are from 2011. Many new MPs for the Greens are very young, and I have no idea how important that Christian strain is for the new parliamentary party. Either way, with the Christian Democrats out of government, the new government will by definition be more secular than the last four, and bringing in the FDP might make them more secular than the Schröder governments. If and how this will affect actual policies is, of course, a different question that is way too nuanced for a blog post.



Conversely, the CSU MPs displayed more restrictive preferences than anyone else.

Sep 172021

Everyone who cares about German elections is very excited by now, because it’s just over a week until election day. And I realise that I have not blogged about this election at all. One reason is that I have not set up a poll aggregator this time round. There are enough better-run sites doing this now, and so I have taken all my polling enthusiasm straight to twitter. The other reason is that there is still a pandemic, and that there are so many other things to do.

But right on the campaign’s homestretch, I have discovered a whole (rather long and reasonably affluent) street covered in MLDP posters. “What, in the name of all that is unholy, is the MLDP?” I hear you cry.

The MLDP, or Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany, is the ultimate splinter party. It came into being in 1982 as the successor of the Communist Worker Association (KABD), itself the result of the 1972 merger of the KAB/ML and the KPD/ML-Revolutionary Path. The latter had been a breakaway from the KPD/ML, which in turn was a tiny Maoist party that moved on to the Albanian brand of communism. Somewhere along the way, some players had been expelled from the old Communist party (the KPD), which by then must have been illegal for a decade or so. Are you still with me?

MLDP Poster International Solidarity

Wait, what? I know that guy!

The MLDP, however, is still enamoured to Maoism and rejects the post-1950s Soviet Union as revisionist. According to the annual reports of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the MLDP is a left-wing extremist organisation. It is also surprisingly wealthy (thanks to some large donations), and sometimes successful in local politics in unexpected places (Swabian towns? Come on!), where it works with local groups to form lists with less offending names.

For the last couple of federal elections, it has formed an alliance (the internationalist list they put on the posters) with like-minded foreign organisations that have a presence in Germany. In 2017, they won just under 30,000 of the PR votes, equivalent to 0.1 per cent. Historically, that was an excellent result: they used to get about 0.01 per cent of the vote. According to the Office, the MLDP has 2,800 members, and one must really wonder what motivates them. Various colleagues have pointed out that the party looks and operates like a (political) sect.

MLDP Poster Environment Pensions

Save the environment by working less. Or something along those lines.

However tenuous, there is a bit of personal connection, too. Back in 1982, when the FDP changed sides, removed my hero Helmut Schmidt, and made Kohl Chancellor, I was outraged (and all of 13 years old). When Kohl manufactured a lost vote of confidence that winter so that he could get the 1983 election, I was earnestly listening to experts who claimed that this move was slick, but unconstitutional. The President and then the Constitutional Court disagreed. When Kohl then ran again in 1987 I would have loved to vote against him, but I was three weeks too young.

So my first chance to express my general dissatisfaction came with the 1989 European Election. Also, I was doing national service. That meant that I had a lot of spare time that I used for reading campaign materials, watch the party broadcasts, and think about how to best invest my shiny new vote. Everyone I talked to thought that the EP was as second order as it gets, and that one could and should freely experiment. So for a time, I toyed with the idea of sticking it to the man by voting for something seriously, hardcore left, like, you know, these MLDP chaps. This wonderful clip finally helped me make up my mind.

Europawahl 1989 - Wahlwerbespot MLPD

Watch this video on YouTube.
Aug 092021

Just for the fun of it, I have turned my recent article on Germans’ support for pre-implantation genetic diagnostics (PGD) into a short video. If you want to know why Germans would rather have laws along the lines of Belgium or the UK, and why they don’t get them, but do not want to read the full 8,000 piece, look no further – just click on the video below.

Secular citizens, pious MPs: Attitudes about genetic testing are more permissive than German laws
Watch this video on YouTube.

Apr 172021
Family parking

Is there a political gender gap amongst young Germans?

Gender gaps are everywhere, but there are some places where they are less likely. According to the authors, young Germans represent a least likely case for gender differences in political activity: female levels of educational attainment are actually higher than male ones, and adolescence is a time (for many) before those aspects of family life kick in that tend hold women back.

But as it turns out, “least likely” is actually “not determinstically likely, but very likely”. The authors find substantial differences in the socialisation of young men and women, which are linked to rather dramatic differences in internal efficacy and self esteem. They also uncover evidence that men benefit more from factors that contribute to political activity, particularly in institutional settings. Intriguing, depressing, hardly surprising.

Pfanzelt, H., & Spies, D. C. (2019). The Gender Gap in Youth Political Participation: Evidence from Germany. Political Research Quarterly, 72(1), 34–48. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1065912918775249

What we liked

Students were over the moon. They praised the clear structure, the strength of the theoretical argument, the clear exposition and the empirical strategy. Also (for once), this was about something that they actually deemed relevant. According to them, this was easily the best paper that we read all winter. I agree.

What we did not like so much

Nothing to declare.

Jul 032020
Large parts of the GOP are nominally opposed to big government. But they have done nothing to stop the growth of ever more armed police forces – on the contrary. This long read about law enforcement in the US is worrying, but also quite fascinating from a political/administrative science point of view.
Unmarked police in the US, extremists in the German army, and the legacy of Fascism in Italian architecture: 3 links I liked 4
Over the last five years or so, investigative journalists in Germany have uncovered several far-right networks within police forces and amongst active soldiers and reservists. In some cases, large amounts of weapons, ammunition and other provisions were stolen and stashed away in preparation for a future civil war. A whole host of these cases involve the KSK, a special forces unit. Germany’s Military Counterintelligence Service, which historically was somewhat reluctant (cough, cough) to address this problem, now says that the right-wing extremism within the ranks has reached “a new dimension”. The agency is currently investigating more than 600 cases of alleged right-wing extremists within the forces. 20 of those concern members of the KSK. It is good and well that the minister is starting to take the problem of right-wing extremists in the KSK and elsewhere more seriously, but it is also a little late.

Authoritarian regimes like to make use of the arts for conveying their message, and arguably, architecture is particularly great when it comes to propaganda. After a regime change, many of these buildings are still useful and in some cases even aesthetically pleasing. So what do you do? I found this article about Italy’s allegedly complacent approach to Fascist architecture quite interesting, but I think the comparison with Germany is a bit unfair: first, many problematic buildings were simply destroyed in the war, second, a lot of the surviving buildings have a dodgy past that is too conveniently forgotten. Case in point: in the 1930s, about 30 amphitheatres (“Thingstätten”) were purpose-built for indoctrination. Many of them survived and are used to the present day for open air concerts.

May 292020


I’m currently working on a paper that looks into the role that Germany’s eastern states (aka “the new Länder”, the ex-GDR …) played for the breakthrough and the consolidation of the “Alternative for Germany” party. This figure shows support for the AfD from 2013 to 2020.

The graph is a teeny-weeny bit busy, so here is the extended legend ? Circles are results from state (Länder elections), labelled with state codes. Squares are Bundestag, diamonds are European parliamentary elections. Filled symbols represent eastern Länder, or partial results for the eastern states only (Bundestag and EP elections). Hollow symbols represent the western states/partial western results. The blue line is the (locally smoothed) average over about 200 national elections polls from the Politbarometer (FGW) and Deutschlandtrend (Infratest-dimap) series. There are four main observations.

Graph showing electoral support for the AfD by region (east vs west) and level

Source: official results; Politbarometer & Deutschlandtrend polls

The eastern vote share is consistently at least two times as high as the western vote share

Not exactly a new finding, but the AfD does much better in the east than in the west. In fact, so much better that some observers see the party as specifically eastern problem. This is not correct, but the difference is striking. Even in the 2013 Bundestag election (when the AfD campaigned as a soft-eurosceptic, “liberal-conservative” outfit), the party was clearly more popular in the east. Possible reasons: fewer partisans, lower levels of institutional trust, more xenophobia.

The AfD might not have survived 2015 without the eastern states

Almost exactly 5 years ago, the AfD was almost falling apart (also see just about every other of my blog posts from that period). Support for the party fell below 5 per cent (also see the section after the next), prominent members threatened to leave or simply went. The FAZ called them, in their professional journalistic assessment, “a laughing stock”. Radically transformed (see what I did here?), the party bounced back in 2016, but during this period, their only full-time politicians with access to funding and the media (apart from two remaining MEPs) were about 30 state-level MPs who had won seats in the 2014 series of elections in Brandenburg, Saxony, and Thuringia – incidentally on platforms that presaged the AfD’s trajectory towards the Radical Right.

Eastern state MPs outnumbered their western counterparts until 2017

It’s not directly visible in the graph, but: the higher vote share in the east (combined with the electoral calendar, the relatively large number of eastern states, and the disproportionate size of small-state legislatures) meant that until the Bundestag election in September 2017, there were twice as many AfD (state) MPs in the east. Although the east has just over one fifth of the population and about the quarter of the AfD members, a large chunk of the party elite was recruited (though not necessarily born) in the east. Even after the 2017 election, about half of the MPs (state and federal) were eastern.

The AfD’s downward trend began long before Corona

Journalists love a good story, and they like to link the AfD’s current underwhelming performance in the polls to the fact that people are weary of populists in a crisis, and the AfD’s mixed messages on COVID. But it is also clear that the AfD’s support in national polls peaked in 2018. The declining salience of immigration and the revelations on right-wing extremists within and around the AfD have not exactly helped. Support for the party has ebbed and flowed before, and local polynomial regression by design tends to exaggerate trends at the margins of a plot, but it is clear that support began to fall months before Corona became the dominant issue in Germany and elsewhere.