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Saarland’s predictive value for German federal elections is virtually nil

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a conservative Christian Democrat, won a second term as minister-president in Saarland on March 26. (Facebook)

No sooner than Martin Schulz seemed to have captured political lightning in a bottle, his party fizzled in the first state-level test in the leadup to Germany’s autumn federal election.

In the southern state of Saarland last weekend, chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) not only won the election, but improved its support since the last election in 2012, giving the state’s conservative minister-president, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who has served in that role since 2011, a second term.

Headlines blared that the narrow defeat somehow marked a defining moment for Schulz, the newly crowned leader of the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party), which has pulled into a virtual tie with the CDU in opinion polls for the national vote in September.

Don’t believe the hype.

It’s one of the smallest of Germany’s sixteen states, both in area and in population (996,000). Nevertheless, Saarland’s size isn’t the only reason its election results will have little impact on a federal election still six months away and even less predictive value. It’s true that the state election, the first of three such state-level votes this spring, showed that the CDU’s political power isn’t evaporating overnight. But Merkel and Kramp-Karrenbauer, whose Christian Democrats led every opinion poll in the weeks and months preceding the vote, should have expected to win Saarland’s election.

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RELATED: As Gabriel steps aside, Schulz gives
Germany’s SPD best shot in a generation

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Though the renegade Social Democrat Oskar Lafontaine — one of the founders of what is today the democratic socialist Die Linke  ran the state government from 1985 until 1998, when he briefly became Germany’s finance minister, Saarland before 1985 — and since 1999 — has always been friendly territory for the Christian Democrats.

Far more consequential will be the state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous state in Germany (with around 17.8 million people) and one of its most wealthy, on May 14 — and in Schleswig-Holstein a week earlier.

In NRW, Hannelore Kraft, a pro-growth Social Democrat who has often been mentioned as a future chancellor, is hoping to win reelection to a third term (she assumed the office of minister-president in 2010). Though the state is historically competitive, Kraft is a popular official, and the SPD has recently taken a meaningful lead since Schulz — who grew up in Eschweiler, a city on the state’s western edge near both The Netherlands and Belgium — became the party’s chancellor candidate. If the Social Democrats fail to hold NRW, it will be a far more depressing harbinger, for many reasons (a fifth of the German electorate, a longtime bellwether, popular SPD incumbent, Schulz’s home state), than the Saarland result.

Continue reading Saarland’s predictive value for German federal elections is virtually nil

Left hopes to make eastern breakthrough in German state elections

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Bodo Ramelow (pictured above) isn’t a Stasi throwback intent on socializing Thuringia into a communist hellhole.Germany Flag Icon

Instead, he’s a rather boring Lutheran born in West Germany, but he could also become the minister-president of the former East German state after state elections on September 14, which could give Die Linke (Left Party) control of its only state in Germany. Thuringia is just one of three eastern states voting throughout the next month, joining Brandenburg on September 14 and Saxony two weeks earlier on August 31.

The Left Party, in particular, has a strong following in the former East Germany, given its roots as the former Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus (Party of Democratic Socialism), the successor to the Socialist Unity Party that ruled the eastern German Democratic Republic during the Cold War. As such, the traditional Western parties have been wary of partnering with the Left Party.

That’s beginning to change as the German left increasingly considers a more unified approach, and eastern Germany has been a laboratory for so-called ‘red-red coalitions’ between the Left and the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party). As such, the Left Party served as the junior partner in Berlin’s government for a decade between 2001 and 2011 and in the state government of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern between 1998 and 2006. Furthermore, a red-red coalition currently governs Brandenburg, and its leaders hope to renew a second term for the government in September’s election.

Though the outcomes aren’t roughly in doubt, the elections take place under the backdrop of news that the eurozone could be sinking back into economic contraction. Initial numbers from the second quarter of the year showed the economy contracting by 0.2% — the first contraction since 2012 — after first-quarter growth was revised down from 0.8% to 0.7%.

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RELATED: Has the first Ossi chancellor been
good or bad for the former East Germany?

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That’s in addition to the income gap that still plagues eastern Germany, where economic growth lags significantly behind the states of former West Germany, nearly a quarter-century after reunification:

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The east’s lagging economic growth, the strength of Die Linke, and  growing unity between the SPD and Die Linke are common themes in all three state elections over the next month.

Saxony: August 31

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Saxony is the most populous of the three eastern states voting over the next month, making it the biggest prize. But it’s also where the governing Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) of chancellor Angela Merkel are most assured of winning reelection. Continue reading Left hopes to make eastern breakthrough in German state elections

LIVE BLOG: Can Merkel win an absolute majority?

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With results yet to come in, the first exit polls show that German chancellor Angela Merkel winning a huge mandate.Germany Flag Icon

Here’s the ZDF exit poll:

  • Merkel’s center-right Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party) and its Bavarian sister party Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern (CSU, the Christian Social Union): 42.5%.
  • The center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party): 26.5%.
  • The democratic socialist Die Linke (the Left): 8.5%.
  • Die Grünen (the Greens): 8%.
  • Conservative, eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany): 4.8%.
  • Liberal Merkel coalition partner Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party): 4.5%.

Let’s start with what we know.

How much of a victory is this for Merkel? It’s absolutely huge.

With 42.5% of the vote, Merkel’s CDU/CSU union would win just 1.3% less than Helmut Kohl won for the CDU/CSU in 1990 — and that was in the afterglow of reunification.

It looks like Peer Steinbrück will have led the SPD to a better result this year than Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the former foreign minister who led the SPD to win just 23% in the 2009 election.  It’s still not a great result for the SPD, and the exit polls show that the SPD didn’t actually narrow the gap in the final days as some pre-vote poll surveys had indicated.

Now let’s think about what’s still uncertain — it’s obvious that Merkel’s preferred coalition partner, the FDP, is struggling.  It would be the first time in Germany’s postwar period that the FDP fails to win enough seats to enter the Bundestag — their worst result was in 1969, when it won just 5.8% of the vote, and it follows their best-ever result from 2009 — 14.6%.  It’s been a spectacular collapse, and it’s hard to believe that Philipp Rösler’s leadership will survive very long.  There’s a lot of rebuilding ahead.

(Note that in Hesse, where state elections are being held, the FDP is falling short with just 4.8% as well.  While the CDU has won around 39%, the SPD is winning 31%, the Greens 10.5% and the Left 6% — and that means we could see another SPD-led attempt to govern with the support of the Left. Either way, it’s hard to see the current CDU/FDP coalition continuing to govern.  Here’s more on that race).

It’s still too soon to know whether the AfD or the FDP will win less than 5%.  But if they do, it’s conceivably possible for Merkel to win an absolute majority with just the seats of the CDU/CSU.  Thought 42.5% isn’t an absolute majority when the denominator is 100%, it comes very, very close when the denominator is 85.5% — the sum of the voter support of the four parties to clear the 5% hurdle.

If Merkel falls just a handful of seats short, and the FDP doesn’t enter the Bundestag, it may not be worth entering a coalition, but trying to govern with a very strong minority government.

Obviously, a ‘grand coalition’ with the SPD would be the most likely coalition, but as I’ve argued for weeks, a ‘black/green’ coalition between Merkel and the Greens has a lot of natural appeal.

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Update, 13:51 ET.

So it seems pretty clear that the CDU/FDP coalition that governs Hesse will not be reelected.  But neither will the SPD/Green coalition have enough seats to control the Hessian Landtag.  That leaves the Left, which will win around eight seats, as the kingmaker — just as in 2008, when the SPD found itself in nearly the same situation.  When that happened in 2008, it led to a year of disorder that ultimately resulted in snap elections in 2009.  SPD leader Andrea Yspilanti faced an internal revolt when she tried to form a government with the support of the Left, and Hessian voters gave the SPD 13% less support in the 2009 elections.  This time around, we’ll have to see if Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel, the new SPD leader in Hesse, can deliver a more graceful partnership with the Left.

Volker Bouffier, the CDU leader, will also likely try to determine if there’s space for a grand coalition or even a CDU-Green coalition in Hesse.

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Update, 14:07 ET.

Even if Merkel wins an absolute majority of 300 seats in a 598-member Bundestag, there are a couple of good reasons why she might want to form a coalition with either the SPD or the Greens:

  • CSU hardliners.  With an ultra-thin majority, Merkel will not have a huge margin for victory.  That could risk pulling her further to the right.  Even if the AfD doesn’t make it into the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament already has a mildly eurosceptic party — the Bavarian CSU.  Top CSU leaders, including Bavarian finance minister Marcus Söder have called on Greece to leave the eurozone, which makes them about as eurosceptic as the AfD.  In a world where Merkel will want the flexibility to negotiate further bailouts for Greece, Portugal and other challenged European economies, and potentially a European banking union or greater fiscal control, she’ll want the support of a strong pro-European government.
  • Bundesrat considerations. With the likely loss in Hesse, the CDU/FDP will control just 10 seats in the Bundesrat, the upper house of the German parliament.  Leftists will control 41 seats, and CDU/SPD grand coalitions at the state level will control another 18 seats.  That means that Merkel will still have to look toward consensus in order to govern, and pulling either the SPD or the Greens into government could smooth the passage of legislation through the upper house.
  • Political calculation.  It may look like joining a coalition as Merkel’s junior partner is hazardous to your health as a political party.  The SPD, after four years in a grand coalition with Merkel, had a disastrous 2009 election and now the FDP, after four years in government, will leave the Bundestag altogether.  But a coalition with the Greens could make political sense for both the CDU and the Greens.  By separating the Greens from their traditional partners in government, Merkel could generate even more disunity on the German left.  But the Greens have had a difficult election — and there’s now evidence to show that they do better under a moderate, business-friendly platform (see the success of Winfried Kretschmann, the only Green minister-president, in the German state of Baden-Württemberg) than under the kind of leftist campaign — tax increases and advocating ‘veggie day’ — that the Greens ran in the federal 2013 campaign.  A turn to the center could really maximize the potential of the Greens in the 2017 election, and nothing could telescope that shift more than a partnership with Merkel that pulls Germany’s government ever so gently from the right to the center over the next four years.

Update, 15:58 ET.

Projections are now divided between showing the CDU/CSU with 295 seats, just short of a majority, and with 303 seats, just barely a majority:

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We’re obviously going to have to wait to know the final numbers.  Keep in mind also that there’s still a chance that the eurosceptic AfD could still sneak into the Bundestag.

 

 

Has the first Ossi chancellor been good or bad for the former East Germany?

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Does the rise of an East German (or ‘Ossi’) chancellor in Germany just 15 years after reunification — and her likely reelection 23 years after reunification — showcase just how fast the two Germanies have sutured into a common nation?Germany Flag Icon

Or does it highlight the extent to which the eastern former German Democratic Republic (GDR) has failed to catch up with the western former Federal Republic of Germany (FRG)?

The six eastern German states are home to just 16.3 million Germans today, a vast minority of the country’s 80 million-strong population.  But two days before Germans choose whether to give a third term to chancellor Angela Merkel (pictured above in 1990 as an activist for democracy in East Germany) — who was born in Hamburg, but grew up in the eastern city of Templin, in Brandenburg, where her father was a pastor — it all depends on whether you think the glass is half full or the glass is half empty.easternstates

Merkel comes from the Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party), and it was her mentor Helmut Kohl who pushed for the swift reunification of Germany after the historic 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, which had since 1961 divided the eastern city of Berlin into GDR and FRG sectors.

By some accounts, the six states that comprise what used to be the GDR are doing as well as can be expected less than a quarter-century after transitioning from a command economy to a market economy, and the end of ‘East German identity’ is already at hand:

The end of a country is on the horizon, a country that never formally existed: East Germany. A demographic group that also never formally existed is coming to an end, as well: the East Germans. It’s time for an obituary….  The old eastern German issues have been dealt with. The adjustment of pensions to western German levels is almost complete, and hopefully a uniform minimum wage will clear away some of the absurd differentiation into east and west. Eastern Germany no longer means very much to high-school and university students today. When younger people are asked where they are from, they usually mention the name of a city, a region or a state.

After all, Germany has had an eastern chancellor for the past eight years and, since March 2012, an eastern president in Joachim Gauck who fought hard against the DGR’s authoritarianism before 1990 and spent the first decade after reunification chasing down the phantoms of the DGR’s secret police, the Stasi.  The most significant transitional figure of post-reunification eastern politics, Matthias Platzeck, who has been minister-president of Brandenburg, the largest eastern state, since 2002 and a member of its government continuously since 1990, resigned for health reasons in August of this year.

Merkel and the CDU, according to polling data, are polling up to 37% — an increase from the 30% that the CDU won in the previous September 2009 elections.

But economic conditions in the six eastern states still lag behind the rest of Germany.

At the end of 2012, Germany’s unemployment rate stood at 5.5% (it’s 5.3% today going into the federal elections).  In each of those six states, the unemployment rate was significantly higher than the national average — compare that to the five largest states, all of which are in what used to be West Germany:

regional unemployment

Continue reading Has the first Ossi chancellor been good or bad for the former East Germany?

Close state election in Hesse could tilt federal Bundesrat further left

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While all of Germany goes to the polls on September 22 to elect a new national government, voters in the state of Hesse will also be choosing their own state government.hesse flagGermany Flag Icon

Although Hesse isn’t as large as Bavaria, which held its own state-level elections on September 15, exactly one week before the federal vote, the election in Hesse is as much a tossup as the national election is likely to be a certain win for German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Hesse, a state in south-central Germany that borders both Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia, is home to Frankfurt, the financial center of Germany and in many ways the financial center of Europe.  With just over 6 million residents, Hesse is only the fifth-most populous state in Germany, but its role in the German economy means that the result on Sunday is important — its GDP per capita, on a regional basis, is Germany’s highest (except for the small city-states of Hamburg and Bremen). hessemap

It’s also important because the result of the Hessian election will determine five votes in the Bundesrat, the upper house of Germany’s parliament — a loss here on Sunday would leave the center-right with firm control of just 10 out of 69 votes in the upper house.  That would strengthen the parliamentary check that the center-left holds through its domination of the state governments that cumulatively determine the representatives to the Bundesrat.

It’s also a state where the two main center-right and center-left forces are balanced nearly equally in polls — the race is expected to be incredibly close.

Merkel’s Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party) has controlled Hesse’s government since the 1999 elections, when Roland Koch led the CDU into government alongside the liberal Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party).

But things took a poor turn after a particularly brutal election in January 2008, after Koch and the CDU took a hard-right, anti-immigrant turn.  The CDU and the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) essentially tied in that election — each won 42 seats in the 118-seat Landtag (state parliament).  With neither the CDU’s preferred coalition partner, the Free Democrats nor the SDP’s preferred partner, Die Grünen (the Greens), winning enough seats to form a stable majority, it left the democratic socialist Die Linke (the Left) holding the balance of power after it won 5.1% of the vote, enough to win (just barely) six seats, entering Hesse’s Landtag for the first time.

SPD leader Andrea Yspilanti ultimately decided to work with the Left — controversial for the party’s links to former communists in East Germany — but a revolt within the Social Democrats caused her attempts to fail and led to early elections in January 2009.  The Hessian electorate blamed the Social Democrats for the political crisis, and the SPD dropped 13% from its result just a year earlier, giving the CDU/FDP coalition a reprieve.

Koch stepped down as minister president in August 2010 to pursue business interests, handing over the reins to trusted acolyte Volker Bouffier (pictured above, left, campaigning with Merkel).  Bouffier previously served as Koch’s decade-long minister of the interior (and sport), embracing more robust surveillance and police techniques throughout the 2000s, which earned him the nickname, ‘Black Sheriff.’ Continue reading Close state election in Hesse could tilt federal Bundesrat further left