Why the CDU, CSU and SPD are losing voters, and how to win them back

One reason for the political stability of the Federal Republic of Germany has been the strength of two political blocs. The big-tent party on the center-right is the Christian Democratic (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU. The one on the center-left is the Social Democratic Party (SPD). But as last month’s elections in Bavaria and Hesse confirmed, these blocs have withered away, perhaps permanently.

On the rise are instead the political fringes: the progressive-liberal Greens and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) on the far right. If current trends continue, Germany could find itself in a situation where the CDU/CSU, the SPD, the Greens and the AfD each get about 20 percent in most elections, with the rest going to smaller parties.

This would have huge implications for Germany and the entire European Union. For several years, the EU has been biding its time as it waits for Berlin to reach crucial decisions on eurozone reform (or the lack of it). This sort of limbo could become the new normal. If coalition governments in Germany contain three or four smaller parties, reaching compromise will generally take much longer. Germany would stop being the bedrock of the European Union.

How did that happen? And can Germany get out of this mess?

The SPD’s decline began when it first joined a Grand Coalition under Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2005. Back then, the Social-Democrats were between 30 and 35 percent in the polls. Now they are down to about 15%. The SPD has lost support because it can no longer differentiate itself from the CDU/CSU. In voters’ eyes, the parties look almost the same.

The CDU/CSU’s decline is more recent. Poaching some of the issues of the SPD, the two “Union” parties jointly had the support of about 40 percent of voters until 2015. The conservative wing within Angela Merkel’s bloc tolerated the party’s move to the left on economic policies to keep the SPD at bay.

But when the refugee numbers rose in the fall of 2015, Angela Merkel positioned the party outside the conservatives’ comfort zone with her liberal policy. For many on the right wing of the CDU/CSU this was too much. It was one thing to borrow economic policies from the SPD; it was quite another to adopt migration policy from the Greens.

The main problem of the CDU/CSU now is, therefore, the creeping alienation of the conservative voter base. Whenever the CSU or parts of the CDU demanded more conservative policies (such as border controls or the cancellation of dual citizenship) the chancellor shrugged these proposals off. Conservative voters became painfully aware that their concerns and demands will never be met by this conservative party under Angela Merkel.

This is the reason why many conservative German voters began flocking to the far right Alternative for Germany(AfD). The AfD rose from 3 percent in the summer of 2015 to about 15 percent now. Whereas many progressives used to think that Angela Merkel’s leftward shift would strengthen liberal Germany, it instead had the opposite effect: It led to the rise of the illiberal party of Germany, the AfD.

This behavior by the CDU/CSU and the SPD has led to two main impressions among German voters: First, the Grand Coalition is incompetent (as proven by its non-handling of Dieselgate and other scandals). Second, the coalition cannot figure out a way to resolve its schizophrenia on migration policy.  This benefits the parties that have clear, uncompromising positions on migration and the Diesel scandal: the AfD on the right and the Greens on the left.

What should the parties do?

The SPD should leave the Grand Coalition with the CDU/CSU as soon as possible. And it must develop a coherent economic and financial program. The CDU/CSU, meanwhile, must bridge the divide between its liberal and conservative wings. It must allow conservative voices in the party to be heard loudly and clearly.

The CDU’s party secretary and candidate to succeed Merkel as party boss, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has understood this. She is trying to hone a conservative profile. However, she is still bound to Angela Merkel’s progressive legacy. This perception as a “mini-Merkel” is her weakness. Another candidate, Jens Spahn, is more aggressively conservative, but is still young and hasn’t had much time to build support in the CDU’s regional organizations.

The third of the major candidates, Friedrich Merz, has said he wants to appeal to younger and urban voters but is remembered as the most conservative in his first career in politics. Come December 8, it should become clearer whether the CDU can hope to regain its former strength as a big-tent party.