Centrists victorious, radicals on the way out: German politics after the May regional elections

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Elections were held in the German states of Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia in May. Marco Bitschnau returns to the results, which are particularly disappointing for the country’s social democrats.

One of the many things that makes German politics interesting is that there is almost always a state election just around the corner. Given the country’s federal structure, they are generally larger than similar contests in other EU member states, although the first of this year’s four elections – the SPD’s victory in Saarland – has received rather limited coverage due to the small state size and population.

The two regional elections held last month in Schleswig-Holstein (8 May) and North Rhine-Westphalia (15 May), however, were of a completely different caliber. These two states are major Flaechenstaaten who exert considerable influence on federal policy and can even tip the balance of power in the upper house Bundesrat.

Schleswig-Holstein is Germany’s northernmost state, culturally influenced by neighboring Denmark (the Danish-speaking minority even has its own party, which is exempt from the 5% threshold) and economically dependent on trade and tourism. A rural, Protestant state with no notable industrial traditions, it has been disputed between the CDU and the SPD since the post-war period, carrying a reputation for experimental political constellations. Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck, for example, served two ministerial terms here in the first-ever state-level coalition between the CDU, Greens and FDP (known as the “Jamaica” coalition).

However, North Rhine-Westphalia, with its former social democratic strongholds in the Ruhr area, the traditionally conservative districts in the northwest Munsterland, and wealthy liberal cities like Düsseldorf and Cologne, is often seen as a microcosm of Germany as a whole. Being the most populous state makes it a particularly valuable electoral prize, especially since a government post in the state can turn even relatively obscure officials into serious candidates for higher positions. When Armin Laschet threw his hat into the ring to become leader of the CDU last year, his main advantage was the influence he enjoyed as minister-president of the state; and when the party moved after its defeat, it was eventually replaced by another North Rhine-Westphalian: Hochsauerlandkreis-based Friedrich Merz.

Both states have been governed by CDU-led coalitions since 2017: the Jamaican coalition in Schleswig-Holstein and a “black-yellow” coalition between the CDU and FDP in North Rhine-Westphalia. This naturally put the SPD in a favorable position ahead of this year’s election. Only a few months ago, the party’s new co-leader, Lars Klingbeil, proclaimed his vision for a social democratic decade; beating two CDU minister-presidents, he thought, would give credibility to this project while strengthening the position of Olaf Scholz in Berlin. Indeed, the poll results at the start of the year prompted cautious optimism: decent numbers in Schleswig-Holstein and a steady centre-left lead in North Rhine-Westphalia put even the most pessimistic inclined to relative ease. .

Yet by April that initial euphoria had cooled considerably, with new polls again showing the CDU in the ascendancy. Shortly after came the shock. First, the SPD’s Thomas Losse-Müller suffered a crushing defeat against popular CDU incumbent Daniel Günther in Schleswig-Holstein. Then, a week later, Laschet’s young successor Hendrik Wüst repeated Günther’s trick, not winning as massively but still comfortably beating his SPD challenger Thomas Kutschaty by a nine-point margin.

Among the other parties, the Greens improved markedly, the FDP lost almost half of its voters, the AfD did not cross the threshold in Schleswig-Holstein (its first failure in a state election since 2013) and finished barely above in North Rhine-Westphalia and Die Linke went on their way to irrelevance in western Germany with abysmal results in both contests.

What can we learn from all of this? There are a few considerations that need to be made. First, the political center is getting stronger again. The CDU’s 43.3% in Schleswig-Holstein is unheard of since 1983 – when Germany still had a three-and-a-half-party system – and its 35.7% in North Rhine-Westphalia is also the highest statewide result. in almost two decades. Few would have expected such a rapid recovery after last September’s disappointing federal election performance. On the other hand, the SPD may have suffered two bitter defeats, but most of their losses were offset by wins for the Greens (who must now be seen as an essential part of the centre). In sum, about 85% voted for one of the four traditional mainstream parties (CDU, SPD, Greens, FDP) in the two states; a difference of almost 10 percentage points compared to the 2021 federal election (76.1%).

Second, although the Greens have continued their winning streak, reaped the most visible benefits (both future coalitions are expected to be Black-Green), and consolidated their position as the third force in German politics, their strategic perspective remains quite idiosyncratic. The party failed to unite the centre-left behind it but still dominates much of the political agenda; he did not reach the level of the big two Volksparteien but is still much stronger than all the other parties; and although his ministers have won respect for their pragmatic approach, they are still regularly challenged by extremists and environmental activists. Too big to be a small player, (still) too small to be a big player: it will be interesting to see how this situation can affect the party’s identity and future prospects.

Third, the center’s impressive results have come, of course, at the expense of the more radical forces, whether left or right. Yet the substantial AfD and Die Linke losses are not only a continuation of earlier trends (the AfD has now lost seats in nine consecutive national elections), but also a sign of growing skepticism about heterodox foreign policy approaches to Russia. aggression against Ukraine. Admittedly, neither state has ever been particularly fertile ground for anti-establishment thinking, but typically pro-Russian tendencies within both parties may at least have contributed to their disastrous results this time around. While the AfD has long harbored sympathies for Putin, Die Linke star MP Sahra Wagenknecht (a former supporter of a European security union with Russia) has repeatedly called for dialogue with the aggressor in recent years. weeks.

More difficult to assess is the impact of these elections on federal politics. Of course, two wins out of two can be interpreted as an encouraging sign for Friedrich Merz, but his feelings about Daniel Günther’s triumph in Schleswig-Holstein may be a little more complicated. First, because Günther, a Merkel loyalist and committed moderate, has vigorously attacked Merz in the past; and second, because a popular minister-president with a proven electoral record can pose a serious threat to his own ambitions. Merz has done many good things since he was elected party leader, but victories that are not seen as his victories (and perhaps even the opposite) could prove pyrrhic in the long run – at least if he intends to run for chancellor in 2025.

On the other side, Olaf Scholz can’t be happy with the situation either. Schleswig-Holstein might have been a long shot, but there were high expectations for Kutschaty’s chances in what is still considered the heartland of German social democracy. That it ultimately lost by such a large margin should be a warning sign for the SPD, which clearly failed to maintain the momentum it had built up over the past few months. It is not altogether improbable that what had been so emphatically declared a social-democratic decade might ultimately turn out to be little more than a social-democratic semester.

To complicate matters further for Scholz, the FDP’s massive casualties undermine the internal cohesion of its “traffic-light” federal coalition. If the Liberals continue to suffer such defeats, there will be growing pressure on their leader Christian Lindner to reposition his party, increase the pressure on the SPD and the Greens and – as a last resort – consider leaving the coalition. The tragic political fate of his predecessor, Guido Westerwelle, already hangs over his head like a veritable sword of Damocles, and Lindner can be expected to seek at all costs to avoid this outcome. Needless to say, this only underscores the inherent fragility of the Scholzian coalition which, in Lindner’s own words, has always been based on a shared sense of responsibility rather than ideological closeness.

With the elections in Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia now behind us, the next state to go to the polls will be the SPD-dominated state of Lower Saxony in early October. This will give much-needed time to reflect, react, reorganize, reorient and, in the case of the CDU and the Greens, rejoice as well.


Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)


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