Like the U.S., Germany Is Divided. Unlike America, It’s Coping
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- At first blush, Germany’s parliamentary election was a victory for moderates, and a clear defeat for extremists. The populist fringes — the Alternative for Germany (AfD) on the far right and the post-communist Left on the opposite side — both lost seats. The vast majority of votes went to one of the four centrist party blocs, although there were large swings between those.
With that verdict, the electorate in effect nixed the only coalition option that would have been radical, an all-left tie-up of the Social Democrats, the environmentalist Greens and The Left. The next government will instead be formed by some combination of the center-right and center-left, probably weighted toward the latter.
But if you drill down into the results by region, a different picture emerges. It shows a Germany that is bitterly divided. In the U.S., the red/blue fault lines run between rural and urban areas, and between regions such as, say, the Deep South and New England. In Germany, they also separate metropolises from the countryside. But above all — 31 years after reunification — they still delineate the former West and East Germany.
Scroll through these electoral maps of Germany prepared by Bloomberg News. They show the relative strengths of the parties geographically. It’s the shading of the smaller parties in particular that speaks volumes of sociology and history.
Start with the FDP. The Free Democrats are a pro-business and pro-market party that favors entrepreneurialism, individualism and limited government — what Europeans, unlike Americans, correctly call “liberalism.” Their support is strongest in western Germany, and especially in the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, which likes to label itself the land of tinkerers and inventors. It’s the heartland of the country’s vaunted Mittelstand of family-owned businesses, car makers and other export champions.
Then check on the Greens. It’s a party that was born out of West Germany’s counterculture and anti-nuclear movements. Even today, its strongholds are almost coterminous with a map of the former “Bonn Republic,” as the West was nicknamed before reunification. Their fans tend to be educated, cosmopolitan, well-heeled and very concerned about the environment. That explains why the Greens are especially strong in metropolises, but often loathed in the countryside, especially in what used to be the East.
But the old Iron Curtain reappears most starkly when you look at the two extremist parties, the AfD and The Left. The dark areas jump out almost like a map of the former East Germany. In parts of the region, the AfD even came in first. Like The Left, which descends from East Germany’s communist regime, it largely represents a protest movement of easterners who feel alienated from, and resentful of, the mainstream media and cultural elites. Psychologically, they’re not too different from many Trump supporters in the U.S.
The most notable difference between the U.S. and Germany — a country that prides itself in having learned the lessons of the Weimar Republic — is how politicians and voters alike reacted to these divisions. As pundits across the spectrum are pointing out, nobody contested the count, nobody tried to rally supporters to “stop the steal,” nobody demonized opponents.
Instead, the four mainstream parties are now entering protracted and discreet negotiations, to see which combination of them can reach a better compromise. The stuff of drama this is not. The stuff of democracy at its best, it is. Germans are right to be proud of what they’ve achieved.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He's the author of "Hannibal and Me."
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