Four German states will go to the polls in 2022, which means four chances for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to repair the damage inflicted in the catastrophic parliamentary elections last September.
Angela Merkel’s conservative party last year abandoned a solid lead in the polls to post its worst result on record and topple the opposition party for the first time in 16 years. The shock has precipitated internal recriminations, the resignation of senior party officials and a new leadership battle, which will be resolved in January.
Meanwhile, for the election winners, the Social Democrats (SPD) led by the new Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the next elections cannot come soon enough: it would be the perfect time for the center-left party to take advantage of its success in expanding its power in the upper house of the German parliament, the Bundesrat, which is made up of the 16 German state governments.
Four states, different situations
The CDU is desperate to hope that its next leader, who will be Merkel’s arch-conservative and former rival Friedrich Merz, can turn things around by March 27, when the small western state of Saar, on the French border, elects a new government. Once that hurdle is overcome, major elections in North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein loom in May, before the mid-sized but economically powerful state of Lower Saxony votes in the fall.
The four elections are important, especially for the CDU: “They are a big litmus test for the new CDU president,” Wolfgang Seibel, president of politics and public administration at the University of Constance. “The party lost a lot of supporters who turned out to be Merkel voters rather than staunch CDU voters. [the elections] will also influence the direction the party wants to take. Merz has gone to great lengths to soften his image as an economically liberal representative of the conservative wing. “
But some elections are more open than others, and they represent both realistic targets and potential pitfalls for Merz. The Saar is a small state, but its symbolic importance for the next CDU leader is great: the conservative party has governed the state since 1999 but is now behind the SPD in the polls by almost five points. A loss there could be a serious drag on the momentum of a leader trying to rebuild the party.
According to Ulrich von Alemann, professor of political science at the University of Düsseldorf, even a victory for the CDU would not bother the SPD that much, as they could present it as a mere endorsement by the current CDU Prime Minister, Tobias Hans. A victory for the SPD, on the other hand, “might look like an endorsement from the national SPD, it is certainly possible that this further strengthens the SPD,” said von Alemann.
Prime Minister Tobias Hans (CDU) hopes to retain power in Saarland
Much to lose, not much to gain
Prospects for the CDU are also poor in the other small border region holding elections this spring: Schleswig-Holstein, on the Danish border, will be the next state to go to the polls on May 8. Here, too, the CDU is currently running the government. but is five points behind the SPD in the polls – although thanks to the strength of the Greens in state, even a second-place CDU can hope to continue its current coalition with the Greens and the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP).
But even victories for the CDU in these two states might not be good news for the career of Friedrich Merz, 66, as a victory for the CDU would also be a victory for some regional party leaders. Like Tobias Hans in Saarland, the Prime Minister of the CDU of Schleswig-Holstein is an ambitious leader still in his forties: Daniel Günther, considered a moderate conservative and compromising in the tradition of Merkel.
“If they do well in elections and remain state prime ministers, they would certainly start training the post-Merz generation,” said von Alemann. “And it wouldn’t be very comfortable for him either.”
Daniel Günther (CDU) leads a coalition government in Schleswig-Holstein
NRW: tight race, jackpot
The tightest race to date this election year is also the most important: North Rhine-Westphalia will elect its next government just a week after Schleswig-Holstein on May 15. The price in Merz’s home state is potentially huge – just under a quarter of Germans live, and it has the highest GDP of any state – and the latest polls have the SPD and CDU in a dead end, both around 27% -28%. “Whoever is the prime minister here always has an important voice at the federal level,” said von Alemann.
For decades, from 1966 to 2005, and then again from 2010 to 2017, the state was seen as a stronghold of the SPD, home to the party’s traditional industrial working-class base. But more recently, the CDU has seen success in the region, and the center-right has appointed its state prime minister since 2017.
Sadly, Armin Laschet’s four-year reign ended disastrously last September with her unsuccessful attempt to succeed Merkel as chancellor. Today the government is headed by another young upstart conservative: Hendrik Wüst, 46.
Former state transport minister Hendrik Wüst (CDU) took over from Armin Laschet (g) as prime minister of NRW at the end of 2021.
Former transport minister, Wüst is not well known, even in NRW, and has not been tested as a leader in a major election, just like his SPD opponent Thomas Kutschaty, a former justice minister of the ‘State. “As a young and fresh candidate, Wüst certainly has a chance to win NRW,” said von Alemann. “But it will be difficult, especially if the new federal government does not make big mistakes in the next three or four months. But a lot can happen during this period. If Wüst wins the election, his position in the CDU would be significantly strengthened. “
For the SPD, currently on a wave of optimism, the last election of the year, in Lower Saxony in October, appears to be the safest bet: the Social Democrats currently hold 13 points in the polls, and with Stephan Weil they have a calm and solid Prime Minister who has governed for nine years already.
“I could imagine that CDU strategists have already backed out of this election,” von Alemann said. “There’s not much they can do there, but it won’t change the architecture of government in Berlin much. It’s seen as a strong SPD bloc.”
The Bundesrat – German Senate
Beyond their function as spokespersons for political parties at national level, the German federal elections also fulfill an important role in the German legislature. The 16 state governments form the upper house of the German parliament, the Bundesrat, which must pass all federal laws relating to policy areas for which states have constitutional responsibility.
But it’s not exactly like the US Senate. Unlike the American senators, for example, the 69 members of the Bundesrat are not directly elected but are appointed by their parties in proportion to the importance of their role in the different coalitions.
And unlike the United States, an opposition-controlled parliament doesn’t necessarily end up blocking legislation introduced by the Chancellery. While coalitions now dominate the 16 German states, no party wields majority power in the Bundesrat.
Prime Minister of Lower Saxony Stephan Weil (SPD) set to be re-elected
This was not always the case. “In the past, the Bundesrat looked more like the US Senate,” said von Alemann. “There were two big blocs: the states led by the SPD and the states led by the CDU, and sometimes one of the two blocs had a majority against the federal government. Then there was a blockage.
This has changed in recent years, as smaller parties like the Greens and FDP, and regional parties like the Free Voters in Bavaria, have started to play a bigger role in state governments. The distribution of seats in the Bundesrat is now a disconcerting multicolored checkerboard, with only two states having exactly the same coalition (Berlin and Bremen).
On top of that, there is an age-old convention which says that if parties in a state coalition government do not agree on a particular federal law, they must abstain from voting in the Bundesrat. “For this reason, the intention to vote in the Bundesrat is no longer really predictable,” said von Alemann.
“The role of the Bundesrat should not be overestimated,” said Seibel. Barring a landslide by the CDU in all four states in 2022, Seibel said: “I think the Bundesrat will play virtually no role in the federal government’s ability to govern.
Edited by: Rina Goldenberg
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