A Setback for Merkel: Voters Give Germany's Parties a Wake-Up Call

By Claus Christian Malzahn

Sunday's state elections in Germany have shaken up the country's political landscape, making new coalitions possible and giving a boost to the beleaguered Social Democrats. The national election campaign looks set to heat up.

Left Party supporters in Saarland celebrate on Sunday. Zoom
DPA

Left Party supporters in Saarland celebrate on Sunday.

Two defeated Christian Democratic state governors, a newly powerful Left Party, the Greens in the role of kingmaker and a weak Social Democratic Party which nevertheless has ambitions to appointing the governor in two of the three states where elections were held Sunday. Indeed, Germany's "Super Sunday" elections don't exactly bode well for Angela Merkel's hopes of forging a governing coalition between her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) after Germany's national election on Sept. 27.

If Sunday's vote showed anything, it was that a "black-yellow" coalition -- as the CDU-FDP alliance is known, after the parties' official colors -- is far from certain on the national level. Even in the eastern state of Saxony, where the CDU got 40 percent of the vote, a coalition government featuring the FDP as junior partner is not certain. Reports that the national election had already been decided appear to have been greatly exaggerated. Anyone in CDU or FDP headquarters in Berlin who had been assuming that a black-yellow government was a done deal will have to have a rethink after the massive wake-up call from the electorate.

Is a bit of emotion finally going to infect German politics? The exploratory and coalition talks that will follow Sunday's election are likely to drag on at least until the national election and beyond -- and are likely to finally lend a livelier pace and perhaps even a few serious issues to the soporific election campaign, which up until now has been dominated by minor scandals involving stolen cars and dinner parties at the Chancellery.

It's true that it sounded like the center-left Social Democratic Party's (SPD) chancellor candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier was whistling in the dark on Sunday when he spoke of a "good evening for the SPD." His party was soundly beaten by the CDU in the western state Saarland, got less than 20 percent of the vote in eastern state Thuringia and barely scraped into the double digits in Saxony. The results mark a historic low point for Germany's Social Democrats. And yet, it's been a long time since Steinmeier looked as cheerful as he did on Sunday evening in SPD headquarters in Berlin.

The candidate had every reason to be happy. He knows that over the last 20 years, opinion polls for German general elections were almost always wide of the mark when it came to the actual results. In 1990, the year of German reunification, pollsters expected the SPD to clean up in the states of the former East Germany, but instead Helmut Kohl's CDU achieved a formidable winning streak. In 1998, most pundits were convinced that a "grand coalition" of the SPD and the CDU was the only plausible result. Instead, the SPD and Greens emerged victorious on election night, with the help of a quirk of Germany's electoral system known as "overhang" seats.

And then in 2005, when then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had his own party reject him in a vote of confidence before calling new elections, many were talking about the Social Democrats committing political suicide -- until the party's resurrection in the form of the current grand coalition. And this year? If the SPD were a patient, the doctor would long ago have written it off as a hopeless case. But suddenly the supposedly terminally ill patient is showing signs of recovery.

Attacking the FDP

Despite all the confusion that is spreading in the state parliaments in question, where up to six parties are now represented, there are a few certainties: The German political landscape no longer consists of monolithic blocks, but of flexible units. The traditional system of an SPD-Green camp and a CDU-FDP camp now seems like a thing of the past. That's something that is benefiting the SPD, of all parties, just four weeks before the national elections. The SPD did not repeat the mistake it made in the state of Hesse in 2008, where it theatrically ruled out cooperation with the Left Party -- which, with its ties to East Germany's former Communists, is something of a pariah in German politics -- ahead of state elections, only to reverse course after the vote.

If the SPD does manage to claw back some support in the coming weeks, it might manage to prevent a CDU-FDP coalition by forming a blocking minority, and save itself by forging another grand coalition with the Christian Democrats -- or even a so-called "traffic light" coalition with the FDP and Greens. It's safe to assume that the SPD will attack more strongly in the coming weeks, which will be critical to the campaign. But their main target will not be the current chancellor and CDU leader, Angela Merkel -- she is too strong and most Germans seem to want to keep her in the top slot. The attacks will be aimed at FDP chief Guido Westerwelle. As the designated foreign minister (a position traditionally given to the governing coalition's junior partner) with no obvious expertise in international politics, he represents the weakest point of a CDU-FDP coalition. As Sunday evening showed, the weaker the FDP, the greater the SPD's chances of staying in government.

New Opportunities

Sunday's results also create previously unimagined opportunities for the Greens. In Saarland, there are strong signs that an SPD-Left Party-Greens coalition will take power. However, the Greens have not ruled out a coalition with the CDU and the FDP, which would however only have a slim majority in the Saarland state assembly. The hand of the green bride in Saarland will be won by whoever can come up with the largest dowry. To stay in the game, the current Saarland governor, the CDU's Peter Müller, needs to make the Green Party an offer they cannot refuse.

The Green Party's Berlin strategists would prefer to have a coalition with the CDU in one state and with the SPD and the Left Party in another, in order to maintain balance. The party's leadership fears nothing -- not even another term in opposition -- more than a debate about which political camp the Greens belong to. Firstly, because it would tear apart the party, which brings together such disparate elements as far-left environmental activists and centrist eco-yuppies. And secondly, because it would discourage both left-wing and conservative Green voters from going to the polls.

Difficult Problems

Although the new complexity in the political landscape shakes things up, it also creates difficult problems for the players involved. In Thuringia, the SPD and the Greens together did not even match the Left Party's result. The aspirations of the SPD's leading candidate, Christoph Matschie, to become state governor are therefore a purely Machiavellian move -- but one which could succeed nonetheless. The Left Party will have to ask itself what is more important to it: political change or personalities. And if Matschie's plan to trap the Left Party in a pincer movement should fail, he still has a plan B in the shape of a grand coalition with the CDU -- with the pre-condition that the current governor, the CDU's Dieter Althaus, goes.

If Sunday's results give more maneuvering room to Germany's political left, from Steinmeier to Green leader Cem Özdemir to Left Party chief Oskar Lafontaine, then Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle need to ask themselves whether they shouldn't be tearing down the political palisades just as their competition did in the run-up to the state elections. From a purely mathematical perspective, the most stable coalition in Thuringia would consist of the CDU and the Left Party. Is that such a ridiculous idea? Why shouldn't the two major conservative -- in the broad sense of the word -- parties in eastern Germany not cooperate publicly at last? Who would throw the first stone in that case?

The center-right camp will have to do some hard thinking in the run-up to the national election. Otherwise after Sept. 27, their ambitions will remain just a pipe dream. And the other parties will -- just like on Sunday -- be calling the shots.

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Graphic: Results of Sunday's state elections in Saarland, Saxony and Thuringia
SPIEGEL ONLINE

Graphic: Results of Sunday's state elections in Saarland, Saxony and Thuringia



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