German politics has been dominated by two parties since the end of the war – the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats. Yet, recent election results in the southern state of Bavaria and in the central region of Hesse are evidence that they are in big trouble.
This became even more apparent when, the day after the Hesse election, Angela Merkel, Germany’s long-time leader, announced that she would not stand again as Chancellor in the 2021 election and wouldn’t put herself forward for re-election as leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU) in December.
The logic behind this decision is simple: Merkel recognises that her brand is not the electoral asset that it once was and that the need to groom a successor is getting ever more urgent. All eyes will now be keeping a close on on the likes of Jens Spahn, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Armin Laschet – the three front-runners to take over as CDU leader.
Tough at the top
It’s certainly not implausible that German party politics is undergoing a seismic shift. The Christian democrat parties – CDU and their regional partner the CSU – and the Social Democrats (SPD) continue to govern nationally as part of a longstanding grand coalition but are seeing their vote shares and opinion poll ratings slump to historic lows. Meanwhile, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is, since the Hesse election, now present in all 16 regional parliaments plus the European Parliament and the Bundestag. Both the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the socialist Left Party have solid bases of support that see them maintaining a firm presence in national politics. The Greens, meanwhile, are flying high in the national opinion polls and have performed admirably in recent regional elections.
The two main parties do nonetheless now have some time to try to shape the national narrative in a way that suits them. The CDU will try to do that under a new party leader, the SPD almost certainly with the leaders they currently have. That both parties are managing a way out of the unloved grand coalition is clear, but that way out cannot begin any time soon. Both parties are desperate to find alternatives to governing with each other, but, for now, these alternatives are not clear enough and reliable enough to be viable. The only option is to keep calm and carry on.
The CDU/CSU and SPD are helped by the fact that Germany is moving into a period of relative electoral tranquillity. There are no major electoral contests between now and May 2019, the date of both elections to the European parliament and also to the smallest of Germany’s 16 states, Bremen. The next major regional elections take place in the eastern states of Brandenburg and Saxony on September 1 2019. They are quickly followed by another contest in Thuringia (again in the east) on October 27 2019.
This gives the German government some breathing space. Politicians in both the CDU and the SPD are well aware that internal bickering has badly hamstrung the government. Stories of scandal and intrigue far outweigh discussions of any substantive achievements. Both Merkel and Andrea Nahles (the leader of the SPD) know that simply has to change.
Neither Merkel nor Nahles has the slightest interest in collapsing the coalition and calling new elections. That way electoral disaster lies for both parties. They, and majorities in their parties, know that they somehow have to make the national government work. Nahles announced that this will involve a (newly declared) mid-term assessment of whether there’s enough evidence of SPD achievements to merit carrying on. In reality, this will be for internal consumption as the SPD will – in all likelihood – still be a long way from strong enough to risk pulling out of the coalition and prompting new elections. The two parties are subsequently doomed to govern together for at least the medium term.
2019: a bellwether year?
The fact that 2019 will be the year of eastern regional elections will be significant. German national elections are often won and lost in the east. The Greens’ two impressive successes in 2018 have both come in western regions where their post-materialist supporter base is much stronger. This shouldn’t deflect from the considerable achievements of the Greens in Bavaria and Hesse, but eastern Germany will be a totally different challenge.
It’s worth remembering that in the last regional election in Brandenburg in 2014 the Greens polled 6.2%. In both Saxony and Thuringia (also in 2014) they managed identical scores of 5.7%. At the 2017 national election the Greens managed 5%, 4.6% and 4.1% respectively in those three states. Compare this to 19.5% in Hesse and 17.5% in Bavaria and it’s clear that the Greens have a long way to go before they are flying as high in the East as they currently are in the West.
An interesting indicator of where Germany may ultimately end up by autumn 2021 (the date of the next scheduled federal election) could come in where disgruntled CDU voters go in each of the 2019 eastern elections. In Hesse, Infratest Dimap, one of Germany’s leading opinion poll agencies, estimated that around 99,000 former CDU voters opted to support the Greens. Around 96,000 went to the AfD. Only 35,000 went to the CDU’s long-time ally in federal politics, the Free Democrats.
In Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia the CDU doesn’t have as much to lose as it did in Bavaria and Hesse, having polled 26.7%, 26.9% and 28.8% last time out. But, since 1990 the eastern electorate has been – at times markedly – more volatile than that in western Germany. Voters can and do change their preferences, and sometimes quite drastically. If the Greens are again able to pick up around the same number of voters from the CDU as the AfD does, then we can take that as a fair indication that their supporter base really is growing nationally. Given that the AfD is no newcomer in those three states (it took 12.5%, 9.7% and 10.6% of the vote respectively in each of the last regional elections in those states), it won’t be the fresh upstart that it has been until now.
Predicting national trends from regional polls can be a dangerous game. But given that the German government now has the best part of a year to look and act like a government that knows what it’s doing, the three eastern regional elections will be an excellent time to take stock of what all the trends that have appeared in 2018 actually mean. Until then, expect to see muddling along aplenty.