The World from Berlin Hamburg Election Result Is a 'Political Tsunami'

The center-left Social Democrats thrashed Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats in Sunday's state election in Hamburg. German commentators ponder the significance of the result for national politics.

The SPD's Olaf Scholz celebrates his victory on Sunday evening.
DPA

The SPD's Olaf Scholz celebrates his victory on Sunday evening.


Is the SPD getting its groove back? This is the question on German political observers' lips after the center-left Social Democrats secured a landslide victory in the city-state of Hamburg in Sunday's election.

Olaf Scholz will now be the new mayor of Hamburg after his party won a spectacular 48.3 percent of the vote, giving the SPD an absolute majority in the city-state's parliament, something that is rare in coalition-heavy German politics. It is the party's best result in a state election since 1998.

Conversely, it is the conservative Christian Democratic Union's worst result in Hamburg since the war. They fell to a mere 21.9 percent of the vote, slightly more than half of what they polled in the last election in 2008.

What is not clear is how much significance the result will have for national politics. Observers put the CDU's panning down to local factors, such as the collapse of their ground-breaking coalition with the Green Party in November 2010 over a failed educational reform, the abrupt resignation of the mayor, Ole von Beust, and a series of missteps committed by his unpopular successor Christoph Ahlhaus. Chancellor Angela Merkel, the leader of the CDU, put exactly this kind of spin on the result on Monday, saying her party's defeat was due to regional causes.

Nevertheless, the result, which was widely anticipated, is likely to have made Merkel nervous, given that her party faces another six state elections this year. The most important of these takes place on March 27 in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg, a traditional CDU bastion which has been ruled continuously by the party since 1953. Merkel's party faces the prospect of losing power there after the CDU's popularity waned sharply as a result of popular protests against Stuttgart 21, a controversial rail project. A defeat would cause massive reverberations on the national level.

The SPD, for its part, will be looking ahead to those elections with newfound confidence. It will be hoping that the Hamburg victory marks another step in the party's recovery from a record slump in recent years. The SPD fell to a mere 23 percent in the September 2009 general election, its worst result since the war, but it managed to get back into power in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, after the election there in May 2010. Observers are now wondering if it can repeat its Hamburg success in other states.

On Monday, commentators writing in Germany's main newspapers take a look at the significance of the Hamburg results.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Since Sunday, the CDU in Hamburg are once again what they had been for decades, namely a party without any prospects. But this time around, that fact also applies to the party far beyond the city-state. It's not only the first CDU-Green Party coalition on the state level that failed. What has also failed is the first large-scale attempt by the CDU to make itself, in alliance with the Greens, attractive to younger and urban voters. The Social Democrats in Hamburg have contributed to that failure. After 10 years in opposition, the SPD has, thanks to a thoroughly conservative electoral platform, replicated its glory days when it had an absolute majority."

"The Greens, for their part, have been damaged. They have been punished by voters and sent into opposition. As for the CDU, the voters have condemned them in a way that will surely cause serious navel-gazing within the whole party. They will be asking themselves: What could a modern, urban center-right party, that does not depend on the Greens as a coalition partner, look like?"

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"For Olaf Scholz, the circumstances in Hamburg in 2010/2011 were, and are, as favorable as they once were for his patron Gerhard Schröder on the national level in 1998. At that time, everyone could feel that the era of Chancellor Helmut Kohl was coming to an end. Probably a different Social Democratic politician from Schröder would also have won against Kohl. And recently everyone could sense in Hamburg that the CDU's era was also over."

"Olaf Scholz is a man who in photos sometimes looks like a clown after he has removed his makeup. This sense of melancholy has now been replaced by euphoria -- Hamburg has chosen the clown. … The outclassed CDU can take consolation in the fact that it will one day make it back to the top, just as the downtrodden SPD managed to do. The question is how long it takes."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"There will now be talk of Hamburg being the beginning of the resurgence of the SPD at the national level. … It can't be ruled out that Hamburg will function as a beacon of hope for the party. Admittedly, the victory in Hamburg is mainly a success based on local politics and local issues. It cannot automatically be seen as an indicator of what will happen at upcoming state elections in Saxony-Anhalt, Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate."

"It should, however, encourage politicians to recognize opportunities and boldly seize them. This is exactly what Olaf Scholz did, and he has reaped the rewards. In the future, his victory will be seen as evidence that the SPD can forget about shifting further to the left (as some party members have called for). The majority of voters want policies that are reliable in terms of the economy while incorporating social welfare aspects. What the Hamburg result reveals is that the fantasy of a coalition between the SPD, the Greens and the left-wing Left Party has no future. Power lies in the center."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"The collapse of the CDU in Hamburg has three reasons. The fiasco of the failed educational reforms by the CDU-Green coalition hit the conservatives harder than the Greens. Ole von Beust's hasty resignation and the gaffes of his successor completed the picture. Probably the cosmopolitan von Beust served to disguise the fact that the CDU still lacks support in urban centers. Ahlhaus's fall from grace had little to do with Angela Merkel or popular frustration with her national government."

"The Hamburg result is not a model for the six remaining state elections in 2011. Circumstances came together in Hamburg which do not exist in Baden-Württemberg or Rhineland-Palatinate, namely the failure of a CDU-Green coalition in a city-state which never lost its fundamental social-democratic tendencies during 10 years of CDU rule. It would be foolish to believe that this Sunday marked the SPD's resurgence as a major party of the old school, with impregnable strongholds and a loyal party base. And despite its spectacular defeat in Hamburg, a CDU-Green coalition can by no means be ruled out on the national level."

The mass-circulation Bild writes:

"This election victory is a political tsunami! Olaf Scholz has led the SPD in Hamburg back from opposition to an absolute majority. … Although it's clear that Hamburg is a special case -- the CDU Mayor Ole von Beust simply threw in the towel, causing his party to go into freefall -- it's also true that Scholz convinced voters with his straightforward and plain-speaking manner."

"For the SPD, the election year of 2011 could not have started any better. If the Social Democrats succeed in emulating their Hamburg success in Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Württemberg and Berlin, we can look forward to some politically turbulent months."

-- David Gordon Smith

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