Painting a picture of comparative order in a world filled with political turmoil, Ralf Horlemann, the German consul general for Boston, delivered an in-depth analysis of the upcoming German elections at Yale Law School Monday afternoon.
Following a series of exciting and unpredictable elections in the United States, the United Kingdom, Austria and France, Horlemann predicted that the German federal election — which will take place on Sept. 24 — would be relatively uneventful.
Incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union, who has been in power for 12 years, leads her closest challenger Martin Schulz of the Social Democratic Party by between 10 and 17 percentage points in recent polls. And Horlemann predicted that 80 percent of the vote would go to one of the centrist parties, setting the stage for a wide variety of potential coalitions in the likely event that no party can win a majority of seats in parliament. The one-hour talk attracted dozens of students and faculty.
“There [will be] a lot of stability in that system, a lot of continuity no matter what coalition we will see,” Horlemann said.
In explaining the German electoral system to the audience, Horlemann noted that German federal elections typically involve less pageantry than American ones. The campaign itself, which lasts only a couple of months, features just one televised debate and is relatively inexpensive, he said.
Horlemann said the total cost to taxpayers for elections in Germany in 2013 — which included a federal election, an election for the European Union Parliament and two state elections — was about €150 million ($180 million). This money was raised from a combination of party membership dues, government funding based on previous performance and minimal political contributions. In contrast, the United States’ 2016 elections cost $7 billion.
According to Horlemann, the election has largely served as a referendum on Merkel herself. While the leading two parties, which currently serve as partners in government, attempted to emphasize different parts of their platforms, Horlemann described them as largely similar with only minor differences in policy.
Despite his predictions, Horlemann also pointed to abnormalities that separated the 2017 federal election from previous ones. In particular, he highlighted the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland, a far-right political party founded in 2013, as a German example of the global rise of populism.
In its four-year existence, AfD has already garnered seats in the parliaments of 13 different states. The party narrowly fell short of the national threshold for representation in the government in the last federal election. According to Horlemann, this year it will likely receive 7 to 8 percent of the vote, putting it above the 5 percent requirement for seats in parliament.
“This will be the first time since the Second World War … that a right-wing party will come into the Parliament on an electoral platform that is clearly xenophobic and anti-Islamic,” Horlemann said.
However, Horlemann did not dismiss this as a wholly negative development, arguing that gaining power would simultaneously force the AfD to be accountable for an agenda and make its constituents feel heard.
Another pressing concern is the potential for outside interference in the German election. Many observers have pointed to Germany as a logical target for Russian election meddling, but Horlemann assured the audience that the German elections, in which ballots are largely counted by hand, have a relatively small chance of being hacked.
Instead, Horlemann expressed concerns about the prevalence of misinformation in the election, which he termed similar to the wave of “fake news” that hit the United States during the 2016 presidential election. Social media, according to Horlemann, has allowed these false stories to travel faster and further than ever before.
“Today, you have the social media and you speak to 22,000,000 followers on Twitter, so it’s much easier to spread fake information, fake news and to really have an impact,” he said. “I’m not sure that any of our societies, including Germany […] has a lot that you can really do against it.”
Quirin Weinzierl LAW ’18, an attendee and a student from Germany, said fake news is a part of the German political discourse, though not to the same extent as in the United States.
The lecture ended with an examination of the implications of the election on Germany’s changing role on a changing global stage. Horlemann predicted that both of the major contenders would work to strengthen and unite the European Union, which is still reeling in the aftermath of the British vote to exit, and promise that Germany would serve as a leader in the fight against climate change and intolerance.
“It was hopeful to hear how Germany was dealing with so many things like immigration […] it’s cool to see that in a world that’s becoming more xenophobic,” said Mayra Ortiz Lopez, a postgraduate research associate at the Yale School of Medicine.
Akhil Rajan | email@example.com