A Penchant for the Populist Agenda? We take a look at the German elections 2017
Read the German version of this post here
2017 has kicked off as Europe’s ‘super election year’. Early this year, we witnessed the results of the Dutch general elections. While some have seen the success and re-election of Mark Rutte as the first sign of populism, having surpassed its zenith – even entering into a new downwards spiral – the unexpected developments of 2016 keep many onlookers weary. Donald Trump’s election in the US and the vote for Brexit in the UK are two main factors to be considered in the outstanding elections in France and Germany. Since the National Front, spearheaded by Marine Le Pen is anticipated to enter the second round of knockouts, possibly directly facing off against the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron. The election outcomes across the three Western European countries are considered prescriptive for the future of the European Union, more so as they are considered the strongest members holding the union together. Therefore, the results in the Netherlands only prove to be a minute relief as the political year of 2017 remains tense throughout.
We analysed sentiment and hashtag trends across Twitter to paint a picture of what we can expect from the general elections in Germany. Even though AfD – a party campaigning on right-wing populism pledges – is a first-time runner in the general elections and is cautiously watched and fact checked by German established media, it has received a lot of positive responses and support from disillusioned voters who are considering reallocation of their votes from the established parties. We also looked at the sentiment associated with individual candidates, as well as their parties and have aligned our findings with some of the objective news items found along the timeline of our analysis. Throughout the analysis, we wanted to find out if the German elections really prove to have a penchant for the populist agenda.
We analysed hashtags, trends, and opinions over a period of six weeks from 23/01/2017 to 05/03/2017
Here’s what we found:
CDU and SPD are the most established centre-left and centre-right forces in Germany. They are both forming the current government in the so-called ‘grand coalition’, even though they are traditionally standing for very different political agendas. Late last year they both lost voter support due to a lack of individual profile and voter dissatisfaction with their government work. Therefore, both parties still ranked as negative when looking at overall negative sentiment, suggesting that last year’s trends were sustained.
For many young voters, the SPD has become too conservative, while the CDU has driven off some of their older voters because of liberalising their policies under Merkel.
When measuring and comparing the sentiment of the candidates rather than the parties, there is a very different pattern that emerges from what we saw in the first map. Instead of an even disagreement, we see that Martin Schulz – the social democratic candidate – has a very positive sentiment, while Angela Merkel is mainly regarded negatively. One of the reasons for the consistency in unfavourable opinions towards Merkel is her being the office holder for the highest executive office in daily government politics and therefore being exposed to a higher level of required accountability. Furthermore, the negative sentiment towards her is grounded in the sheer demographic of the Twitterati. Younger and more liberal people tend to be more active on Twitter and even some of her regular supporters tend to view her neutrally or critically. Journalists and official news outlets, as a force of public control lean towards re-enforcing moderation or slight criticism for her actions too, and might contribute to an amplification of neutral and negative inputs by having their articles retweeted.
Martin Schulz, on the other hand, can avoid the same scrutiny as he is only competing for the office and not yet in a position to be held accountable for. He is also new to the stage of national German politics having gained most of his reputation on the EU level for the last 20+ years. This ‘white vest’ in combination with a bad reputation shining off from his predecessor Sigmar Gabriel and the weak profile of his party elevates him to a ‘white hope’ for the social democrats and some of the voters sympathising with centre-left values.
Our analysis shows that the support for Schulz has resulted in a type of ‘Schulz hype’ expressed by trending hashtags like #hoheenergie and #kanzlerkandidat. The popularity of the hashtag #hoheenergie refers to the gains that the Schulz candidacy has brought for SPD in current polls. It also shows that the momentum reaches beyond loyal SPD voters, possibly winning some former voters back and reaching out to non-voters. Schulz’ highest sentiment peak occurs on the day of his candidacy announcement and succession of Sigmar Gabriel. Further, associated hashtags were connected to political talk shows (#annewill) as well as foreign affairs such as the CETA free trade agreement, Donald Trump, and Turkey, mainly discussing Schulz’s outlook on a potential chancellorship. Most of the other hashtags mentioned clearly deal with topics people are worried about. Since the sentiment barely changes and always remains positive, we can conclude that users mostly approved of Schulz’ positions towards the topics.
Regarding the hashtags associated with Angela Merkel’s sentiment timeline, we can see that the hashtags during the strongest sentiment drop are connected to the Turkish president (#erdogan), as well as Islam (#islam). Migrants and refugee movements are also mentioned (#migranten). We see that Twitter users are predominantly concerned about their democratic freedom which manifests in the hashtags #demokratie and #grundgesetz. After the detainment of Deniz Yücel, people are unhappy that Merkel is not taking a clearer position against the Turkish president. This shows that the head of state, as well as cabinet ministers, are required to be more vocal about democratic values with a strong international stance than shadow cabinets and the opposition.The change in SPD leadership hasn’t shown an immediate effect on sentiment during our measurement period. However, the overall voting intention for SPD has improved. Their gain in polls is an indicator of hopes that people are putting into the prospect of the SPD regaining their former profile. The voting intention is based on the ‘Sonntagsfragen’ polling results, scoping the expectations across the broader public by reaching out to audiences that aren’t represented online as much. Schulz’s candidacy announcement has a huge effect on polling numbers, resulting in a massive 4% gain in intention for SPD. Consecutively along the timeline, there is only one major loss for their voting intention. Overall the Social Democrats have recovered from a low of 19% in 2016 back to values up to 33%, properly facing off against the Conservatives. A stronger position for both traditionally centrist parties automatically results in lower results for AfD, who were briefly reaching values of up to 20% in regional elections in 2016. Towards the end of our tracked period changes in SPD, numbers are less erratic settling towards a pattern of +/-1 percent week-on-week.
For Angela Merkel’s sentiment peaks and losses we can see that even though people strongly respond to her outings and statements, they do not necessarily trickle down into a changed voting intention for her party. This stays consistent with the regular voter demographic associated with CDU: older, determined people, who are not likely to change their voting decision spontaneously.
The neutrality in sentiment values of the less publicly relevant politicians is grounded in the fact that they are mentioned less often. Naturally, the main candidates and most prospected people for the position of chancellor trigger the strongest responses. Politicians like Horst Seehofer, Alexander Gauland and Björn Höcke are favourites in German satirical shows and magazines. Because they are less influential nationwide, they experience brief surges of attention mainly through satirical, neutral, or ironic messages rather than truly negative ones. Frauke Petry – the AfD’s candidate in the general elections – is the face of the right-wing populism and Germany’s counterpart to Marine Le Pen. The fact that she is ranking positively on our scale, even though she is being viewed critically by established media lies in the fact that her supporters are more active in retweeting and creating positive hashtags with high longevity like #petryforpresident, #frauke2017 or #kanzlerinpetry.
The party sentiment ranking confirms our hypothesis that Twitterati often form their opinion through traditional channels of news distribution. Established media have been flagging AfD as the socially accepted version of the fascist, extremist NPD. Therefore, the highly negative values for AfD and NPD are results of the left-leaning demographic being more active on Twitter. It also confirms that people tend to have stronger value associations with parties rather than people. The limitation of the Schulz effect is demonstrated by the fact that SPD is still lagging behind its conservative competitors CDU and CSU on the overall sentiment ranking.
Finally, when looking at the correlation between sentiment score and tweet volume to evaluate the impact of each tweet in regards to its timeline, we found that fewer tweets result in a high change in sentiment, suggesting that more tweets appeared with more hashtags. This is important when we look at both the candidates’ fluctuation along the timeline. Schulz’s graph displays two peaks in the tweet volume; the first one on 29/01/2017 with positive responses to his candidacy and roadmap set out for the Social Democrats. The second peak shows that people are now more observing what Schulz says and what type of electoral promises he is making.
In comparison, Angela Merkel’s tweet volume experiences little to none significant peaks. Her sentiment varies between almost neutral and a very negative peak (-0.4).
The reason for a negative peak on 03/02/2017 is her opinion about Europe after an EU meeting with other heads of state. The low volume of tweets suggests that the Twitterati again reacted very negatively in fewer tweets. Her opinions on Europe tend to upset supporters of a stronger Europe as well as people that reject the idea of a closer union. The second and highest negative peak is due to Merkel’s cabinet defending the Agenda 2010 policy programme against social imbalances and the wealth gap. They have built many of their own national policies on the agenda programme (an originally social democrat policy). Experts and public agree, however, that those policies have triggered some of the intensified inequality observed today.
With inputs from Priyanshu Gupta, Insights Specialist. Illustrated by Ananya Ghosh.