The danger of Germany’s fractured democracy


30 years after the reunification of Germany, deep democratic divides remain. Reunification still summons up images of huge protests, chants of “Wir sind ein Volk” and, of course, the final toppling of the wall and surge of people from East to West. Against all expectations, it took less than a year for currency union and then political union to be completed. Many East Germans were enthusiastic towards the idea of democracy, and looked forward to catching up with superior western living conditions and industry standards. However, if a merger into one democracy was swift and seamless in 1990, that democracy is no longer so untroubled.

On the surface, 1989 seemed to offer endless opportunity and access to Western prosperity and consumerism for the new Länder in the former GDR (German Democratic Republic). However, the reality has been far from this utopian ideal. The underdevelopment and inefficiency of East German manufacturing and business led to a flood of immigration to the West from 1989, and the privatisation of industry in the former socialist state did little to help the situation, closing down businesses and favouring more productive western workers. All this means that the former GDR is still economically and socially behind its western counterpart, the former FRG (Federal Republic of Germany). By 2004, the unemployment rate in the West was 8.5%, but the figure for the East was over double this at 18.4%, and this gap has been slow to narrow. This disparity is a major factor in the democratic crisis which now faces reunified Germany as East German discontent with economic and social conditions and West German discontent at the continued costs and economic problems of a reunified Germany create a general dissatisfaction with the system of government.

All this means that just three decades on from the jubilation of reunification, German politics now faces two fundamental problems: increasing disillusionment with democracy and factionalism within the system. The initial enthusiasm for democracy in the East has drastically waned since 1990 as the former GDR has been slow to match that of its western counterpart. A survey for the Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach, or Allensbach Institute, in 2019 found that while 77% of those living in what was West Germany believe that democracy is the best form of government in Germany, the figure for the regions that once constituted East Germany is just 42%. This trend is reflected in the substantial drop in voter turnout, down from a post-unification peak of 82.2% in 1998 to an all-time low of 70.8% in 2009, closely followed by 2013’s 71.5%. In comparison with the UK, which saw a turnout of 67.3% in the general election of 2019, this may seem relatively high. However, the UK has had consistently lower turnouts at national elections than Germany since 1945 and actually saw a rise between the years of 2001 and 2016, making Germany’s inverse trend even more worrying.

One possible reason for German voters’ waning interest in their democracy may be found in the second destabilising factor that faces Germany politics and, indeed, democracies around the world: the fragmentation of the political scene, with the rise of new and increasingly polarised parties. Like many other European countries, Germany has seen a surge in support for extremist politics and nationalism this century. The formation of parties such as Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD), a right-wing, anti-immigration party, and the more radical left-wing parties such as the far less successful Pirate Party, has resulted in a highly changeable political spectrum, in which central parties fear losing voters to the poles. The centre-left in German politics is particularly disadvantaged by both the rise of new parties and fracturing of mainstream liberal parties, as political idealists allow their minor differences to get in the way of a united front.

While the CDU/CSU occupies the centre-right ground relatively unchallenged, the centre-left is hotly contested by the SDP, Die Linke and the Grüne (Greens). Not to mention the fate of the FDP, a staunchly centrist party, that traditionally held the reigns to power for both the CDU and SDP for much of the FRG’s history, and continued to do so in reunified Germany. But the party has recently struggled to retain its voters, failing to enter the Bundestag in 2013 for the first time in its history.

When it comes to elections, then, the left in German politics is caught between two undesirable situations: the competition for votes outside of the centre-right ground can either result in a chaotic opposition in the Bundestag, with many small parties attempting to work against the government and each other at the same time (as seen in 2017), or in poor support for all smaller parties, leaving just a few with enough of the vote to enter the Bundestag. This usually ends in a Grand Coalition – a coalition between the two largest parties, the CDU/CSU and the SDP – which does nothing to reinvigorate German politics, as we saw in 2013. Chiefly, this is because the remaining members of the Bundestag are so few that they are unable to hold the government to account or mount a significant opposition.

Thus, the fractured left has handed the CDU/CSU power for 30 out of the last 37 years, and 23 out of the 30 since reunification. The various leftist parties have historically struggled to come to any kind of consensus, with the SPD categorically refusing to work with Die Linke, a splinter group who are now a party in their own right, for much of this century. German election results are increasingly predictable: there has been no successful government featuring a leftist coalition in Germany, and no national government featuring a leftist party since 2005. Instead, all leftist parties are reliant on the CDU/CSU for power. This continuity in the party political scene can hardly be stimulating for German voters. There is little question why voters, especially those in the economically-troubled former GDR, are losing faith in democracy when election after election yields the same result.

All of this makes for startling contemplation. If a conservative outcome in German elections is all but guaranteed, then is it truly a democracy, or just a box ticking exercise? The waning support for democracy amongst the German people is certainly not helped by the lack of a genuine opposition and legitimate alternative government. Since 2005 and the beginning of the Merkel Republic, Germany has been ruled by a series of conservative coalitions, just with slightly different appearances. A continuity of results is surely not a sign of the strength of democracy in Germany, but of its weakness; the ruling party has no real fear of being voted out and elections have long stopped acting as checks and balances on those in power.

Of course, the CDU/CSU is no dictatorship and the problem would be just as worrying if it was the SPD or any other ruling party. Germans still have a democratic process, and Merkel’s party has done nothing to threaten this. However, the left of German politics desperately need to stop the infighting and begin working together. It is only by presenting a united front that the need for fringe parties, at least on the left, will disappear and they can once more mount a serious electoral challenge. The end of Merkel’s tenure with the next election is a unique opportunity for the left to champion a fresh face in German politics. As divided as things stand, this seems unlikely, but is desperately needed to reignite the spark of a truly pluralist democracy. In a country with such a turbulent political history, it is essential that both its parties and population grasp this chance with both hands.

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