Talking Points

Germany's surprising center-left resurgence

For much of the past four years, the prevailing political story out of Germany has been the dramatic collapse of support for the center left. But recent polling raises the possibility that something very different has been going on.

Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has headed the federal government since 2005. That was bad enough for the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). But in the country's last legislative election, in 2017, the SPD won just 20.5 percent of the vote, its weakest showing since World War II. And things got worse from there. Soon after joining in a "grand coalition" with the CDU, the SPD dropped even lower in the polls, hovering for much of the past four years around just 15 percent. Analysts throughout the West took note of the decline and wondered what it might portend for the future of the center left across the democratic world.

But just over a month away from the next legislative elections (scheduled for Sept. 26), things are looking rather different. Aggregate polling shows the SPD rebounding to around 22 percent, only slightly better than its historically weak showing four years ago, but far better than it appeared to be doing until quite recently. Meanwhile, the real surprise is a 10-point drop for the CDU relative to its showing in 2017 (from 32.9 to 23 percent) — and an almost equal and opposite nine-point surge for the left-environmental Green Party (from 8.9 to 18 percent).

Now, polling for the CDU, SPD, and Greens has been somewhat volatile over the past year. (The Greens, at 18 percent, are at their low point and have been as high as 25, while the CDU, also at a low, has bounced around between the mid 30s and its current 23 percent.) But if current polling results are borne out a month from now, it would suggest that the center-left in Germany hasn't collapsed at all. On the contrary, the SPD will have held its own while a substantial number of CDU voters apparently migrated over to the Greens.

That would be a roughly 40 percent showing for the center left — quite a bit better than most analysts would have predicted four years ago (when the SPD and Greens won a combined 29 percent). Yet it would also fall far short of the majority required to form a governing coalition.

And that would point toward what might be an even bigger story out of the upcoming German election: The center left is back, but not by enough to win power decisively. Instead, Germany is increasingly fragmented, with no party or ideological configuration on the center left or center right firmly rising above the others.