Monday, August 24, 2009

Underestimating the SPD and the Overconfident FDP

Several interesting things have emerged since my previous postings. First, in reference to the SPD's dismal polling numbers and how Schröder did better than predicted on election day in 2002 and 2005, there is new evidence that the party's support may be underestimated again this year. According to an interview with renowned pollster Jürgen Falter, many of the undecided voters this year are SPD supporters. If a CDU/CSU-FDP coalition seems imminent, they could very well vote SPD to thwart this prospect. It appears that the Social Democrats could gain as much as 30% of the vote--7% more than they are polling, repeating the pattern of 2002 and 2005. Falter also thinks that if the election outcome seems close, the participation rate may reach 80% like in 2005, which will benefit the SPD. (See This issue of the "undecided" reminds me of the discussion in U.S. politics about "independents" and how recent research has found that most self-identified independents consistently lean towards one of the two parties, so that the proportion of true "independents" or swing voters is much, much smaller than polls indicate ( In any case, there is even more reason to be skeptical towards the Sonntagsfragen results--and perhaps more reason to think that a continuation of the grand coalition is not that far-fetched.

That said, there is much evidence that the Greens are much closer to the CDU and the center overall than was previously the case. Conventionally, the Left-Right spectrum went Left Party (PDS)--Greens--SPD--CDU/CSU--FDP--right radicals. Now, some political scientists are flipping the position of the Greens and SPD. Of course, there is also the current Black-Green coalition in Hamburg--as well as numerous examples at the local level (Kommunen). There is also the so-called "Jamaica" coalition--CDU/CSU-FDP-Green, which might also be possible, even likely, if the SPD witnesses a late surge in electoral support. Given the tensions between the FDP and especially CSU in recent weeks over the allocation of cabinet portfolios, campaign tactics (that the FDP allegedly is running a campaign for all-important second votes), and the policy commitments of a possible "bourgeois" coalition (tax policy in particular), such an outcome appears much less of a sure thing. I also suspect that the FDP's strident neoliberalism will scare away a significant number of voters at the last minute, sending them to the SPD or Greens. (See Der Spiegel)

Moreover, perhaps the CDU needs to heed some political lessons from other countries--even Italy! There was a long tradition in that country of having "oversized" coalitions--i.e., parties were included that were not necessary for a majority. This was a way of reducing the "blackmail" potential of any one coalition partner. Maybe the CDU should welcome the prospect of a Jamaica coalition to thwart the more radical demands of the FDP--which according to one study a few years ago was the most successful party in Europe over the postwar period in terms of implementing its policy agenda. This is unsurprising seeing as it held the balance of power from 1949-1956, 1961-1966 and 1972-1998, and, in the context of the old 2 ½ party system was the "only game in town" for any senior coalition partner.

After 11 years in opposition--its longest such spell since the Federal Republic was formed--the party is keen to co-govern again. Yet, it is already noteworthy that center-right parties are doing as well as they are in light of the on-going economic and financial crisis, but the FDP is really pushing the envelope. I think this tactic will backfire either with voters and/or in coalition negotiations. At a minimum, the party needs to understand that it is not the only coalition option for probable winner Merkel--and really needs to not overplay its hand. Otherwise, "Jamaica" might be its punishment.

--Eric Langenbacher

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