Lessons From Merkel’s Failed ‘Teal’ Electoral Strategy

Written by:
14 October 2021
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Pictured above: German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a news conference with Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz prior to a meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, on August 31, 2021. (Markus Schreiber/Pool via Reuters)

Politicians who aspire to lead their centre-right parties into the deep left might first consider the electoral cataclysm that has taken place in Germany over the past six years.

Departing German Chancellor Angela Merkel has left her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party a husk of its previous heights in 2013 when it fell just five seats short of a majority in the national Bundestag.

To put that in perspective, majorities in Germany are rare, last achieved by the Konrad Adenauer-led CDU in the West German elections of 1957.

To say it has all been downhill since 2013 for the CDU would be putting it lightly. In federal elections in 2017 and earlier this week, the CDU vote (and that of its sister Bavarian party, the Christian Social Union) fell from 42 percent nationally to just 24 percent. Their seats in the Bundestag have also declined by over 40 percent since 2013.

The hollowing out has also taken place at the European Parliament and in 12 of the 16 German states since 2016, where its seat count has declined by as much as 46 percent in Berlin.

It did not need to be this way. The turning point for the CDU came about amidst the European migrant crisis in August 2015, where about 1.3 million refugees crossed North Africa and south-east Europe for nations like Germany.

Rather than assert the primacy of national borders and the rights of the German people to decide who settles in their country—as a centre-right party might be expected to do—the Merkel-led government announced that it would accept an uncapped number of migrants.

The decision was applauded by the CDU’s opponents on the left but led to a revival of alternative right-wing parties. The classical liberal Free Democratic Party and the anti-immigration and Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany Party received 22 percent of the national vote between them.

People take part in a march organised by the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) political party and carry German flags and portraits of supposed victims of violence allegedly perpetrated by migrants. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

In Australia, the test today is the issue of climate change policy and the move from many in the Liberals and National Party (the Coalition) to adopt a policy of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The confusion is perhaps understandable for the Liberals. Their seats are divided between elites in so-called blue-ribbon seats in inner-city Melbourne and Sydney. While on the other side sits its outer suburban and rural base.

Many Liberals prioritise the retention of inner-city seats by adopting environmentalism and the policies of their progressive opponents, a combination of blue and green, which the Institute of Public Affairs refers to as the “teal strategy.”

The defensive strategy is not effective in the long term, especially when Coalition government majorities under Malcolm Turnbull (2015 to 2018) and Scott Morrison (2019 until now) have been so narrow.

The outcome is that the Coalition voter base will be alienated, which will stunt the ability of the party to target the Australian Labor Party’s seats in the suburbs.

Harder to understand is the position of regionally-focused Nationals MPs like Victoria’s Darren Chester and his counterparts at the state level, Peter Walsh and Stephanie Ryan, who themselves have overseen a terminal decline in the party’s parliamentary numbers.

Chester is the representative of the electorate of Gippsland, whose La Trobe Valley was devastated by the closure of the Hazelwood coal-fired power station in 2017 after the operator shifted to investments in low-carbon and renewable energy sources. The outcome was job losses, skyrocketing electricity prices for Victorians, and the state’s need to import energy to meet its needs.

Interestingly the Nationals were not able to hold the seat of Morwell at the 2018 state election. The residents who had seen the party stand by as its power station was closed would have been right in wondering what exactly they had to offer.

That parties on the right seek to move to the crowded left shows a lack of leadership and vision. But for the Nationals, whose voters are exclusively in regional and rural areas dominated by agriculture, manufacturing, and mining, attempting to occupy the same space on the left is electoral suicide.

An established party with a longstanding organisational infrastructure like the Nationals could take advantage of this opportunity of the major parties vacating the mainstream. As Terry McCrann noted in The Australian recently, Victorian Senator Bridget McKenzie and Queensland Senator Matt Canavan are “opting for the opportunity—and rejection of just plain stupidity—by standing up for the mainstream by speaking plainly about the threat of policies like net zero.”

Climate policy represents a turning point for the Nationals: it can either choose to emulate its own past leaders like Queensland’s Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and become the major party representing mainstream Australians, or it could follow Merkel down the path of electoral irrelevancy by adopting the policies of Labor-Green voting inner-city elites.

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