From May 23rd to May 26th 2019, European citizens went to the polls to vote in the European parliamentary elections after five years. How did political movements position themselves in the debates leading up to the elections? How do they react to changes in the society and which topics to they choose to campaign on in order to distinguish themselves fro political competitors?
This overview of political strategy debates among political parties in selected European countries offer an in-depth political analyses - not in text form, but rather graphically and pointedly. We hope for this project to contribute towards a constructive debate on the European elections, their results as well as the way forward.
Even before German parties went into campaign mode, the 2019 European Elections were portrayed as a “choice of destiny” (Schicksalswahl). Much of what German citizens took for granted seemed at stake: After decades of enlargement and ever closer cooperation, Brexit clearly demonstrated that there are concrete dangers of European disintegration. Growing antagonism between the EU and the USA on trade matters, tariffs and military expenses, as well as the spill over effects of the trade war between the USA and China revealed EU’s vulnerability to external influences.
For voters who share the overall pro-European consensus in Germany, the rise of parties and governments who challenge the rule of law in the EU appears as a threat. An opinion poll ahead of the elections found that 88 per cent of respondents agree that voting is crucial in order to contain right-wing populists’ influence in the European Parliament. Fear of EU disintegration had a mobilising effect on most centrist voters. On the other hand, a small, but growing segment of Eurosceptic voters feel threatened by the idea of supranational governance and associate the EU with uncontrolled immigration.
The biggest winner of the 2019 European elections are the German Greens, Die Grünen, who managed to improve their result by 9.8 per cent compared to 2014 and are on a record high of 20.5 per cent. As the Social Democrats (SPD) suffered from an unprecedented loss of 11.4 per cent and obtained only 15.8 per cent of the vote, Die Grünen came in second place after CDU/CSU. This is the first time that SPD comes third, after Die Grünen, in a national election. CDU/CSU (28.9 per cent) still sends the largest delegation to the European parliament, albeit with substantial losses, especially among young voters. In comparison to the 2014 European Election, the Eurosceptic AfD (11 per cent) could improve its result by 3.9 per cent, but fared worse than in the more recent federal elections (12.6). The liberal FDP managed to increase their result by 2.1 per cent (5.4) and is close to the far-left party Die Linke (5.5), which lost 1.9 per cent compared to 2014.
The election results in Germany suggest increasing polarisation on the cultural dimension, as relative gains for Die Grünen (socially progressive, pro-EU) and AfD (authoritarian, anti-EU) show. Substantial loss of votes for the two major catch-all parties (Volksparteien) SPD and CDU/CSU, especially among voters aged 60 or younger, show that Germany is moving towards a multipolar party system with more complex options for governing coalitions.
Unlike for federal elections, there is no threshold for European elections in Germany. Despite high gains for smaller parties (the vote share of parties not represented in the Bundestag rose by 4.1 per cent to 12.9 per cent in total, compared to 2014), there is little evidence for a long term fragmentation of the German party system – as is the case in the Netherlands - in the near future.
The turnout in Germany (61.4 per cent) was much higher than the average turnout in the European Union (50.6) and is the highest in a European election in Germany after the country’s reunification in 1990. For decades, European elections were considered second-order elections (Nebenwahlen) of less importance than federal elections and an opportunity for protest voting. However, there is evidence that the European elections 2019 could reverse this trend.
When asked if their vote in the European election is influenced rather by politics on the federal level or on the European level, German voters would usually see the federal level as more important. In 2019, for the first time, a majority of 57 per cent considered the European level as more important for their vote. As of today, the vast majority of voters see decisions of the European Parliament as important - 71 per cent as compared to 56 per cent in 2014 (according to Forschungsgruppe Wahlen).
On the federal level, the political situation ahead of the European elections was characterised by difficult and unusually long coalition negotiations after the 2017 federal elections and the instability of the governing coalition. After coalition negotiations between the conservative CDU/CSU, Die Grünen and the liberal FDP failed, a new government could only be formed under a second consecutive Grand coalition of CDU/CSU and SPD - 171 days after Election Day.
Since its formation in March 2018, the Grand coalition was under significant pressure, as the Social Democrats (and to a lesser extent the Bavarian CSU) see the threat of losing their own distinctive profile and voter support in this arrangement with CDU. Before entering the Grand coalition, the Social Democrats had called for a referendum among their members, two thirds of whom supported the decision to enter a coalition led by CDU/CSU. Nonetheless, there remains a substantial proportion of SPD members who urge the party leaders to walk out of the coalition.
From January to May 2019, voters’ top priority shifted from the issue of immigration to climate change. When asked to name problems that Germany is facing, “immigration” continuously came in the first place since 2016. This was still the case in January 2019, when the issue was seen as a major problem by 39 per cent of respondents. But by beginning of May 2019, the importance of “environment and energy” had grown and was identified as the biggest problem (by 30 per cent of respondents) that Germany is facing (Forschungsgruppe Wahlen).
In a context of consistent protests by the Friday for Future movement, extensive media debates on Diesel emissions and debates on the end of coal production, climate policies rose to the top in voters’ priorities. Ten days ahead of the election, almost half of the voters (48 per cent) identified climate protection as a salient issue that would determine their voting decision, followed by social security (43 per cent), preserving peace (35 per cent), immigration (25 per cent) and economic growth (19 per cent) (Infratest dimap). Rents and the housing market also appeared as a salient issue, as they were identified as a major problem by 17 per cent of respondents in April and 11 per cent in May 2019 (Forschungsgruppe Wahlen).
The increased prominence of environmentalist and energy issues was beneficial for Die Grünen, since voters clearly associate the party with these matters. Moreover, the environmentalist party is believed to have the highest competency in the field of climate protection (according to 59 per cent of respondents), with CDU/CSU on a distant second place (10 per cent).
The fact that CDU/CSU is seen as the most competent party in major policy areas such as the economy (37 per cent), European politics (Europapolitik, 28 per cent), refugees and migration (27 per cent) did not translate into improved election results. The SPD ranks second in most areas of competence and first in the area of social justice (24), but only 4 per cent see SPD as the most competent in climate protection. As social justice is identified as an issue dealt with on the federal level, SPD is not likely to make gains thanks to its competence on the issue in a European election.
As the heat maps of SPD show (see below), the Social Democrats still have a large field of sympathisers but failed to mobilise them. Centrist voters saw more credible options among CDU/CSU, FDP and Die Grünen, while left-progressive voters opted for Die Grünen as a ticket for change on the European level. SPD could not lift social justice-related issues to the top of the agenda on the European level. Whereas the party leadership was not successful in shifting the debate towards social justice, voices within the SPD youth organisation in favour of expropriating larger companies, e.g. in the real estate sector, were covered extensively in the media but did not resonate well with centrist voters.
Die Grünen, on the other hand, could attract votes from both economically left- and right-leaning voters, as the large variation of voters’ positions on the left/right axis shows. Part of their success is that Die Grünen appeared united with no major conflict between the traditional left (Fundis) and right wing (Realos) of the party. Subsequently, the party was identified by 52 per cent of voters as a choice for a “modern civic policy” (Infratest dimap). The prospect of a coalition between CDU/CSU and Die Grünen currently enjoys the highest public support in years.
The Eurosceptic AfD found it difficult to navigate between systemic opposition towards the EU and appealing to more moderate Eurosceptic voters. Still, AfD enjoys lasting support by voters who see immigration and the spread of political Islam as salient issues. AfD has successfully reached out to voters who do not stand in line with their policy proposals but cast their vote as a sign of protest.
Traditionally, Die Linke finds it hard to compete in European elections. Even though, internally, the party could find a compromise and campaigned in favour of the EU, rather than against it, it was not perceived as a convincing option to pro-European left voters. With regard to Eurosceptic voters with economically left preferences, die Linke is competing with AfD, especially in Eastern Germany.
The liberal FDP attempted to build on their image of an advocate for civil rights and innovation on the European level. Whereas some voters applauded FDP’s opposition towards the introduction of “upload filters” on social media platforms, they did not fare as well among pro-European voters as Die Grünen did. There is after all only a small proportion of voters who support FDP’s staunch pro-market position.
Under pressure from ever declining public support on the federal level and in the midst of an internal process of renewal and re-orientation, SPD aimed to present itself as the more pro-European part of the governing Grand Coalition. However, the campaign of frontrunners Katharina Barley and Udo Bullmann did not gain momentum. The party lost voters in all age groups and enjoyed its biggest degree of support among voters aged 70 and older. Rather than placing their agenda for Europe in the forefront, the party was forced to react to debates on the federal level. A discussion on possible expropriation of real estate spurred by the party youth organization was widely covered and grew out of proportion. Polarisation towards the left end of the political landscape could not win the party more votes among left progressives. As the Fridays for Future protests propelled climate policies to the top of the public debate, SPD could not convince progressive voters of their Realpolitik approach towards coal consumption. Although climate policies are among the priorities of SPD, the party has no ownership of the topic. As part of the governing coalition, SPD is perceived by many voters as a reason for stagnation. Younger voters joined in the criticism of the widely discussed video (12 million views) of vlogger “Rezo” who was blaming both CDU/CSU and SPD for the status quo in (climate) politics. Among centrist voters SPD is competing with CDU/CSU, who despite big losses came again in the first place of the election. (Words: 249)
As the heatmaps show, SPD sympathisers are predominantly left and progressive, although a small proportion have centre-right economic preferences. The spatial position of SPD is close to the position of Die Linke on the economic dimension and is almost as progressive or pro-European as Die Grünen on the cultural dimension, although it is worth noting that if only EU issues are considered, SPD would be positioned above Die Linke. It is worth mentioning that all three progressive-left parties have put forward similar proposals concerning social policies, taxation and climate change but differ in their approach. With such considerable overlaps in the leftist parties’ platforms, the crucial question is which party would manage to own an issue and be considered the credible advocate of the respective policy. Compared to the broad field of sympathisers, there is much less variation in the spatial positions of SPD voters. The majority of SPD voters have clearly centre-left positions. In view of the data, the question remains why SPD could not turn their large camp of sympathisers into actual votes. As SPD and Die Grünen share a similar pool of sympathisers, it seems that Die Grünen could capitalise on the political polarisation in both the progressive and left dimension and became a more credible option for the social liberal milieu. As the comparison of the stances of sympathisers and voters shows, SPD also lost among its centre-right sympathisers. Socially conservative sympathisers likewise abstained from voting for the party.
With a gain of more than 9 percent compared to the last European elections, the German Green Party, Die Grünen, have had the biggest increase of votes by far. The party won votes from all their competitors and was especially successful among younger and urban voters. The European Elections confirmed again that the diminishing differences between the two major parties on the centre-left and centre-right, SPD and CDU/CSU makes way to a multipolar party system, where Die Grünen will play a major role in future coalition making. The party successfully pushed climate policies to the front of the political agenda, using the momentum of the “Fridays for Future” protests and the ensuing debate on climate policy.
In a public debate that was dominated by fears of further European disintegration and the constant stream of news about the negative effects of a Brexit chaos, Die Grünen could position themselves as the social-liberal anti-dote against the spread of nationalism.
As compared to SPD, their main competitor for progressive-left voters, the party could present itself as a ticket for change which attracted voters disappointed by centrist parties. Under the new party leaders Baerbock and Habeck, the party presented a united front, despite existing rivalries between proponents of a more “realistic” approach on issues of economy and migration (represented by the prime minister of Baden-Wuerttemberg in coalition with CDU) and left-progressive supporters of a coalition with left-progressive parties.
As the outcome of the European Elections shows, Die Grünen successfully mobilised social-liberal voters in their electoral bracket. With their positions in favour of environmentalist policies, far reaching EU-competences and progressive social politics, the party is, by far, the most up north in the progressive dimension. This polarisation has seemingly paid off for Die Grünen, even though both its sympathisers and voters do not share all the progressive views of the party. Regarding the spatial position of Die Grünen on the economic left-right axis, there is a much wider voter distribution, since there are both proponents of pro-market incentives and stronger state regulation as means of achieving ecological transformation. In comparison to its sympathisers, Die Grünen voters are a more condensed field within the left-progressive quadrant. Even if Die Grünen has a broad field of sympathisers who see the necessity for climate action, the party is, after all, not eligible for voters with socially conservative, far left or staunchly pro-market positions. When comparing the spatial spread of Die Grünen sympathisers, we see that SPD, Die Grünen and – to a lesser extent - Die Linke are competing for the same electorate. Most of the voting districts where Die Grünen came in the first place in the European Election are in urban areas. The election result supports the trend towards a polarisation between a social-liberal population in the cities and a less cosmopolitan electorate in rural areas.
With EPP group leader Manfred Weber running both on the ticket of CDU and CSU, the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party nominated a common Spitzenkandidat in a European Election for the first time: a much-needed sign of unity after the CSU was dangerously close to leaving the traditional union with CDU in 2017 over a disagreement with Merkel's liberal stance towards immigration. Manfred Weber, however, did not enjoy as much public support as the Christian Democrats had hoped for. As of March 2019, only 20 percent of voters knew the name of the CDU/CSU Spitzenkandidat, with higher results only in Weber's home state of Bavaria. CDU lost voters in all age groups and CSU could increase their results only by a thin margin compared to the last European Elections. CDU/CSU failed to put their core competences (economy and security) on the agenda and as climate change moved up in voters' priority, the dynamics of the election clearly went against them. The party's reaction to younger voters, towards the protests against “upload filters”, the Friday for Future movement and the “Rezo-effect” appeared helpless. A video attacking CDU/CSU for their inaction on climate change by vlogger “Rezo” went viral (12 million views) with a range of influencers joining in the protest. The European Election was the first election on a national level after Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer succeeded Angela Merkel as party leader. Although Kramp-Karrenbauer is widely seen as a disciple of Merkel's course of modernisation, she tries to find common ground with voices within the party that strive for a polarisation in the socially conservative direction (such as the conservative club, WerteUnion or large parts of the youth organization Junge Union).
After internal criticism regarding the loss of support among conservative voters, CDU/CSU tried to improve their profile in order to appeal to socially conservative but pro-EU voters. The position of CDU/CSU is clearly on the economic right and still within the progressive camp of the party system (CDU/CSU shares the overall pro-EU consensus) yet are closer to the conservative side of the axis than all other parties except for AfD. Interestingly, the majority of both the party’s sympathisers and voters are positioned towards the centre-left and the progressive end of the axes, whereas there are relatively few respondents in the conservative and right quadrant who would consider voting for CDU/CSU. This might be explained partly by the fact that older voters, who represent the majority of CDU/CSU supporters (while 40% of voters aged 60 or older voted for CDU/CSU, only 13% of voters under 30 did so) are less likely to make use of a voting advice application. Still, according to the data, CDU/CSU did not appeal to voters on the conservative right quadrant of the political landscape, the former stronghold of the centre-right party, nor did they cater to centrist sympathisers further up on the left and progressive dimension. In sum, the party relies on moderate voters and sympathisers with no radical stances on both economic and EU-related issues.
In the run-up to the European Elections Die Linke had to face internal disputes about the party’s position towards the European project. Traditionally, it has not unanimously supported the idea of the European Union, which it sees as a “neo-liberal” project rather than a guarantor of expanding social rights and economic equality. Pro-European reformers within the party, however, have largely shaped the European election manifesto and campaign in the end. By end of February the party appointed two rather unknown Spitzenkandidaten, Demirel and Schirdewan who could not increase the publicity of the campaign.
On the national level, Die Linke has followed the strategy of a left-right economic polarisation and attracted voters disappointed with the course of the SPD and CDU/CSU coalition on social security and welfare state issues. In the election campaign, Die Linke lifted this strategy to the European level, with pleads for the introduction of higher EU-wide minimum wages and big tech taxation. Similar to Die Grünen, the party’s campaign targeted voters looking for a response to the perceived threat of authoritarian and nationalist parties in the EU. Whereas in the last federal election Die Linke gained the support of urban and cosmopolitan voters, they lost voters from both their base in Eastern Germany, as well as in bigger cities. (Words: 213)
Traditionally, Die Linke tries to win votes by invoking polarisation on the economic left/right axis. Fairly good results among cosmopolitan urban voters in recent elections have made Die Linke change their profile in favour of more progressive and pro-European positions. Accordingly, Die Linke sympathisers are to be found among progressive-left respondents: almost none of them are located on the conservative or right side of the political landscape. The focal point changes towards a more centrist (less left and progressive) position when looking at Die Linke voters. The proposal of Sarah Wagenknecht – a popular former member of the party executive - to adopt a more restrictive approach towards immigration and to cater to the demands of nativist voters resulted in internal controversies. This could have cost the party some support among social liberal voters. The heatmaps show only a very small segment of Die Linke voters with Eurosceptic or authoritarian views. Just as in federal elections, Die Linke had only limited support in districts in West-Germany and obtained results of 5 per cent or more almost exclusively in the East. More detailed, comparative analyses on the respective spatial position of Die Linke voters in Eastern and Western Germany would therefore be beneficial. The field of Die Linke supporters has big overlaps with sympathisers of SPD and Die Grünen. Nevertheless, according to the election results – the far-left party was the least successful competitor for left/progressive votes.
After the failed coalition talks on the federal level in 2017, the German liberal party, FDP has played a rather marginal role in the German political system. Known as a voice in favour of market deregulation, FDP did not join Eurosceptic voices on the political right, who portray the EU as a “bureaucratic monster”, but promoted the view of the Union as a platform for free trade, modernisation of industries and protection of civil rights. Traditionally, the FDP electorate is comprised of the most market-friendly, pro-business strata of the German citizenry. However, FDP’s clear opposition to “upload filters” and its image as a party that stands against the illiberal trend might explain support coming from younger and progressive-left respondents. Spitzenkandidatin Nicola Beer was accused of having a conflict of interest regarding Viktor Orbán because of her husband’s alleged business ties with Hungary, and party leader Christian Lindner’s opposition to the Fridays for Future protests. But the party could improve their result with 1,9 percent, compared to 2014. FDP’s strategy of presenting itself as a force for innovation, subsidiarity and deregulation on the European level, seems to have resonated with the party’s electoral base. But compared to the federal election, FDP lost progressive voters to Die Grünen as well as Eurosceptic voters on the economic right to AfD. (Words: 217)
The majority of both FDP’s voters and sympathisers are located in the progressive and pro-European side of the political landscape and hold moderate centrist to centre-right views on economic governance. While these stances are generally resembling the position of the party itself, the heatmaps suggest that FDP voters, and especially sympathisers, are not necessarily fully in favour of the party’s staunchly liberal policy proposals in terms of economics – many of them are actually located in the left-of-centre side of the axis. FDP voters and sympathisers hold more moderate views on economic policy than the party itself, resembling those of right-wing competitors CDU/CSU and AfD. This suggests that, in general, the segment of the German electorate that votes for the right, is rather moderate in its economic policy preferences. Nevertheless, FDP’s support for progressive policies and European integration resonate well with its electorate – liberal voters and sympathisers tend to be overrepresented on the progressive, pro-EU side of the political landscape. Interestingly, FDP sympathisers are more likely to hold conservative and Eurosceptic and economically right-wing views than the party’s actual voters, which could indicate that there are many current AfD voters who voted FDP in the past.
Since its foundation in 2013, in reaction to the handling of the Euro-crisis, AfD has followed the strategy of portraying itself as an alternative to the status-quo, an “anti-establishment” party that opposes the consensus of Germany being the biggest winner of the EU integration process. Nevertheless, Germany’s first electorally successful Eurosceptic party is confronted with the fact that even socially conservative voters recognise the benefits of European Integration. Studies continuously show an overall support for Germany’s EU membership and, as of today, more than 70 per cent of voters see it as beneficial for their economic situation. This explains AfD’s ambiguous communication with regard to their goals and objectives when it comes to the EU. The manifesto mentions a possibility of Dexit, but only as the “last option”; the document considers that the Euro has “failed” yet argues that the single currency should still circulate in parallel with the re-introduced D-Mark. AfD started off as a party critical of the German course in handling the Euro crisis, but voter priorities have changed the party’s focus towards the topic of immigration. Only 11 per cent of AfD voters named a “stable currency” a priority for their voting decision compared to 69 per cent naming “immigration” in the same exit polls. As compared to the European election in 2014, AfD improved its result by 3.9 per cent but lost 1.6 per cent compared to the federal election in 2017.
As the heatmaps show, AfD has sympathisers from a wide range of political persuasions, concentrated predominantly in the socially conservative lower half. AfD sympathisers are mostly socially conservative and Eurosceptic but do not necessarily have pro-market economic orientation. As for AfD voters, the focal point moves towards the conservative right quadrant. However, the wide distribution of respondents on the right/left axis suggests that AfD appeals to authoritarian and anti-EU voters on both the economic left and right. In fact, AfD is the only party that seems to attract Eurosceptic and nativist voters on the left, which may explain their strong electoral performance in Eastern Germany. There is a considerable gap between the party’s position and the spatial positions of its supporters. This can be partly explained by the tendency of voters to support the AfD, not because it is the party that best represents their interests and ideological build-up, but as a demonstration of discontent with other parties’ policies and the status-quo in general. Apparently, even though the stances of many of AfD’s voters do not overlap with the party’s positions, they have still voted for the party as a sign of protest. Accordingly, AfD framed the EU election as an opportunity to give other parties a warning or “Denkzettel”.
The graphs show the position of political parties in Europe in a two-dimensional political space, based on stances on 30 salient policy issues in the contemporary public debate. The most salient issues were selected by a team of academics and experts, based on a close examination of the parties' platforms and media discourse. Each issue statement is framed in such a manner that it relates to the economic left-right dimension or the cultural libertarian versus authoritarian dichotomy. The horizontal axis represents the economic dimension, differentiating political parties on policy issues related to state intervention in the economy, redistribution, taxation policy and the welfare state. The vertical axis addresses the post-materialist cleavages that juxtapose libertarian/progressive versus authoritarian/conservative positions. Here, typical issues are multiculturalism, immigration, national identity, gender equality and environmentalism. Parties were positioned on the issues with a 5-point scale ranging from “completely disagree”, “disagree”, “neutral”, “agree” to “completely agree”. They were positioned in accordance with their official stances on the issues, as expressed in their party manifesto, website and other campaign material, including reports in the media. All major parties were also asked to position themselves and provide excerpts from their party manifesto or other formal documentation. Discrepancies were communicated to parties over several rounds until there was full clarity and authorisation of their final issue positions. However, in case no consensus was reached (for example, if the party’s justification was not convincing) the expert team reserved their right to make a final placement decision.
The spatial map is constructed on the basis of the aggregate positions of the parties on the two dimensions (the left-right dimension and the libertarian-authoritarian dimension). The precise party position is located in the centre of the ellipses. The ellipses represent the standard deviations of the party answers to all statements used to construct each axis. Thus, parties in favour of both left- and right-wing policy proposals have a wider ellipse on the left-right axis; parties in favour of both libertarian and authoritarian policy proposals have a lengthier ellipse on the libertarian-libertarian axis. More specifically, the broadness of an ellipsis refers to the spread on the left and right dimension whereas the height is the result of variation on the post material axis.
Texts and Mappings:
André Krouwel - Founder of Kieskompas BV & Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Yordan Kutiyski - Analyst - Kieskompas BV
Oscar Moreda Laguna - General Operations Manager - Kieskompas BV
Oliver Philipp - Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (Berlin)
Christopher Gatz - Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (Berlin)