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Merkel shouldn’t despair over center-right’s Lower Saxony loss


Voters in Germany’s fourth-most populous state, Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony), have elected popular Hannover mayor Stephan Weil (pictured above) its new minister-president after an incredibly narrow victory for the center-left coalition, according to official provisional results.
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The predicted victory would mean that the center-right coalition headed by minister-president David McAllister, a high-profile (and half-Scottish!) politician within the ruling Christlich Demokratische Union (Christian Democratic Union) of German chancellor Angela Merkel would lose power for the first time in a decade.

As such, the German media is already reporting that the election is a setback for Merkel in advance of expected federal elections later in September or October 2013.  While the election is somewhat of a barometer for federal politics, generally (it’s where former chancellor Gerhard Schröder got his political start — he served as the state’s minister-president from 1990 to 1998), there’s actually a lot of positive news for Merkel in the Lower Saxony result.

Provisional results give the center-right CDU around 36.0% of the vote, a small lead over the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, the Social Democratic Party), with just 32.9%.  Unfortunately, however, that represents around a 6.5% drop in support from the previous regional elections in 2008:


Although the CDU’s traditional coalition partner, the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democrats), will have increased their share of the vote to around 9.9% (despite polls showing the FDP with support running at around 5%), the SPD’s traditional coalition partner, Die Grünen (the Green Party), has won around 13.5%.

According to projections, that means the CDU will hold 54 seats in the Landtag, Lower Saxony’s regional unicameral parliament (a 14-seat drop from the current representation) and the FDP will gain a seat for a total of 14.

The SPD will gain just one seat to hold 49, while the Greens have gained eight seats to hold 20.

Together, therefore, the center-left is likely to hold 69 seats to just 68 seats for the center-right, giving Weil the narrowest of margins in the Landtag

The key factor is the loss of all 11 seats currently held by the more radical Die Linke (The Left Party), which is projected to have won just 3.1% of the vote, lower than the 5% required to win seats under Lower Saxony’s electoral system.  That means that all of the center-left seats won in Sunday’s election will have gone to the SPD-Green coalition, rather than split with the Left Party, which has historically rejected the possibility of joining a coalition with the SPD.

The Piratenpartei Deutschland (Pirate Party) also fell far below the 5% threshold.

So the result is quite a setback for McAllister, who was contesting his first election as minister-president, and has been mentioned as a potential successor to Merkel as a federal chancellor.  There’s a fair chance that Merkel could bring McAllister into her federal government as a top aide and minister (she once attempted to appoint him as the head of the CDU federally).

Although McAllister isn’t incredibly unpopular in Lower Saxony, he became minister-president in 2010 after Christian Wulff, premier since 2003, resigned to assume Germany’s largely ceremonial presidency — Wulff resigned in February 2012, however, amid allegations that he concealed a private loan from a wealthy friend with business interests in Lower Saxony.

Given the scandal around Wulff, the fact that the CDU has held power for a decade and was seeking its third consecutive mandate for forming a government, and the fact that Germany is slipping into recession, McAllister was always going to have a tougher run in this year’s elections than Wulff had in 2008.

But, as I noted above, there’s a lot of good news for Merkel in advance of this autumn’s elections: Continue reading Merkel shouldn’t despair over center-right’s Lower Saxony loss

Steinbrück set to challenge Merkel as SPD candidate for chancellor

In a month when most eyes have been on Germany’s current finance minister, all eyes are now on Germany’s former finance minister, Peer Steinbrück, who is now set to become the main challenger to German chancellor Angela Merkel in federal elections expected later in 2013.

In a bit of a surprise, Steinbrück was named as the candidate of the main opposition party, the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) on Friday after the other main contender, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, indicated that he didn’t want to run.

Among the trio of Steinmeier, Steinbrück and party leader Sigmar Gabriel, Steinbrück has always been the clear favorite.

But perhaps the most jarring element of Friday’s announcement was that SPD party leaders simply announced the news — in Germany, there are no primaries and no leadership contest as such to determine who will be the candidate for chancellor (essentially, think of the German chancellor much like a very strong prime minister rather than a president). Gabriel is highly unpopular among voters and Steinmeier previously led the SPD against Merkel and her governing Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party) — to disastrous result.

In the previous September 2009 general election, Steinmeier won just 23% for the SDP and lost 76 seats (for a total of just 146).  The party thereupon fell out of the CDU-SDP “grand coalition” that had governed Germany since 2005.  The CDU, which won 34% and 239 seats, was able to form a more rightist coalition with its preferred partner, the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party), which won 15% and 93 seats. Steinmeier had previously served in the “grand coalition” as foreign minister.

The next federal election in Germany is expected to be held in September or October 2013.

Steinbrück, however, remains a less than ideal candidate — he served as Merkel’s finance minister from 2005 to 2009, so it’s going to be difficult for Steinbrück to draw as clear a contrast on economic policy as might otherwise be the case, even with signs that Germany, the last beacon of economic strength throughout the eurozone, is now also likely headed into recession.  As finance minister, Steinbrück famously (demonstrating his, ahem, willful side) derided Keynesian economics and criticized the stimulative approach of the UK’s government under Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, but he is well regarded, alongside Merkel, for steering Germany reasonably well through the 2008-09 financial panic. (Note: Paul Krugman will be happy).

On Europe, too, the German electorate seems receptive to a populist challenge to Merkel’s performance on European affairs — Germans are incredibly weary of four years of what they see as German bailouts of profligate governments from Portugal to Greece.  Nonetheless, the SPD is actually more pro-Europe than the CDU — and especially more pro-Europe than the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria, the Christlich-Soziale Union (CSU, Christian Social Union).  In Bavaria, the CSU-led government’s finance minister Markus Söder has all but called for Greece to be booted out of the eurozone.

In any event, German voters seem fairly well disposed to giving credit to Merkel for walking a tight line between letting the eurozone crumble, on the one hand, and holding governments in Spain, Ireland, Portugal, Italy and Greece to very tight austerity plans in exchange for European monetary and fiscal support, on the other hand.

The latest polls show the CDU-CSU with a very healthy lead of around 38% to just barely 30% for the SDP — since 2010 and 2011, the gap has only grown wider in favor of the CDU-CSU.  The FDP, however, looks set to collapse, picking up just 4%, though the SDP’s preferred coalition partners, Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (the Greens) poll a very strong 13%.  The newly-formed Piratenpartei Deutschland (Pirate Party) and the more leftist Die Linke (The Left Party) poll 6% each.  Given Steinbrück’s centrist characteristics, I would not be surprised to see the current soft support for the Pirate Party migrate to the Left Party or to the Greens — there will be a lot of room on the left in a Merkel-Steinbrück race to win support, both on Europe and on economic policy, especially if Germany’s economy continues in a downward trajectory.  Given the Left Party’s strong base of support in the former East Germany, there’s a real opportunity for the Left to break out.

The ideal candidate for the SPD may well have been the premier of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, Hannelore Kraft, who led the SPD to a huge victory in elections in May of this year.  A premier with charisma, who has championed a more activist state response to boost economic growth, and who could well have been Germany’s second woman as chancellor, Kraft indicated earlier this year that she was not interested in running for chancellor.


Election results: North-Rhine Westphalia

Results are in from North-Rhine Westphalia, and the vote went as expected: a resounding victory for the current coalition government: the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (the Social Democratic Party) and Die Grünen (the Green Party) both improved on their current representation in the Landtag, the parliament of Germany’s largest state.

The SPD now holds 99 seats (an increase of 32) and the Greens hold 29 seats (an increase of six), giving NRW premier Hannelore Kraft’s government a commanding majority in the Landtag.

The Christlich Demokratische Union (Christian Democratic Union) finished a poor second with just 67 seats, while the Freie Demokratische Partei (Free Democrats) will not only remain in the Landtag, but will hold 22 seats, an increase of nine.  Finally, the Piratenpartei Deutscheland (Pirate Party) will enter its fourth state parliament with 20 seats.  Die Linke (the Left Party) won 2.5%, below the 5% of support required to win seats under the proportional representation election system in NRW.

On Friday, I had set forth four key questions for the NRW — and we now have the answers: Continue reading Election results: North-Rhine Westphalia

Four questions for Sunday’s North Rhine-Westphalia state elections

Voters in Germany’s largest state, North Rhine-Westphalia, go to the polls on Sunday, May 13, to elect a new Landtag, the state parliament of NRW.

Politics in NRW, home to nearly 18 million Germans, is often seen as a barometer of German federal politics — it falls in the one-time industrial heartland of Germany, and the state lack neither the leftward tilt of the former East Germany nor the rightward tilt of Bavaria in Germany’s south.  State elections in NRW in 1995 foreshadowed the federal election of Gerhard Schröder, just as NRW elections in 2005 foreshadowed the success of current German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Barring any major surprises, however, the current government headed by a “Red-Green” coalition of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (the Social Democratic Party) and Die Grünen (the Green Party) under NRW premier Hannelore Kraft will improve on its success from the 2010 NRW legislative election.

The SPD has consistently led polls with around 37% to 40% of the vote to just 30% to 33% for the Christlich Demokratische Union (Christian Democratic Union) of Merkel and Norbert Röttgen, who is running against Kraft in the NRW election and who also serves as the federal deputy of the CDU and the environmental minister in Merkel’s government in Berlin.  Early elections were called in March, after the Freie Demokratische Partei (Free Democrats) caused the government’s budget to fail — rather than abstaining from the vote, it opposed the budget, thereby resulting in snap elections.

Given that the CDU has never been expected to win the state election on Sunday, it is unlikely to spur any crisis for Merkel at the federal level, but that doesn’t mean the election won’t have an impact on federal elections — with a German general election on the horizon in 2013, here are four key questions about the NRW election, each of which could ripple through federal politics: Continue reading Four questions for Sunday’s North Rhine-Westphalia state elections

North Rhine-Westphalia: barometer of federal German politics?

Since a mid-March budget standoff when the current government failed to pass its budget by one vote, North Rhine-Westphalia has been (rather unexpectedly) poised to hold early elections on May 13.

This is no small matter, as NRW is the largest state in Germany — with almost 18 million people, it comprises nearly one-fourth of Germany’s population, exceeding the populations of both Bavaria of the former East Germany.  During the post-war period, it was the heart of the Land von Kohle und Stahl (the ‘land of steel and coal’) — today it remains an industrial powerhouse within Germany, even if it has otherwise diversified economically as well.

NRW lacks both the socially conservative political tilt of Bavaria and the heavily socialist/leftist political of the eastern German states, so given its status as the largest German state, it is something of a traditional bellwether for federal elections, which are due in 2013. 

For instance:

  • The 1966 victory of Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (the Social Democratic Party) leader Heinz Kühn and subsequent SPD-led governing coalition with the economically liberal Freie Demokratische Partei (Free Democrats) foreshadowed a similar coalition at the federal level under Willy Brandt.
  • The 1995 SPD-led coalition with Die Grünen (the Green Party) headed by Johannes Rau similarly foreshadowed the coalition between Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the SPD and foreign minister Joschka Fischer of the Greens.
  • In May 2005, the Christlich Demokratische Union (Christian Democratic Union) swept into power in North Rhine-Westphalia, giving momentum to the sense that Angela Merkel would sweep Schröder and the SDP out of power federally.

In the most recent 2010 election, the CDU and the SPD essentially tied with about 34.5% of the vote each and 67 seats each in the state parliament, the Landtag. The Greens finished third, with 12%, more than doubling their number of seats to 23, while the FDP held steady with just 13 seats. Die Linke (the Left Party) took 11 seats, entering the Landtag for the first time. 

Accordingly, the SPD-Green coalition precariously held just 90 of the 181 seats in the current Landtag, leading to the one-vote loss in March’s budget vote and early elections.

This time around, though, the SPD-Green coalition headed by Hannelore Kraft seems increasingly poised for a clear victory — the SPD leads with around 40% to the CDU’s 32% (with a healthy 12% for the SPD’s coalition partner, the Greens), and Kraft remains much more widely popular than the CDU’s Norbert Röttgen. 

At the same time, the CDU holds a small, but steady, lead over the SPD in national polls. 

Normally, Merkel might have been seen to be a ‘lame duck’ chancellor following a CDU defeat on May 13, but the NRW result seems increasingly irrelevant to federal political developments — so the expected SPD victory will cause little turbulence for Merkel as she continues to focus on Europe prior to federal elections next year.

While the NRW election may be irrelevant for the CDU, the SPD and even the Greens, however, it will be a vital test for both of the Free Democrats and the Pirates in advance of the next federal election. Continue reading North Rhine-Westphalia: barometer of federal German politics?