For weeks commentators have complained about Germany's lackluster election campaign ahead of the Sept. 27 federal vote. But a much-needed injection of excitement has arrived in the light of heavy losses for Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives in three state elections on Sunday. The results have given the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) the jitters and now many of its leading figures are calling on the chancellor to up her game ahead of the September vote.
Suddenly, the CDU's dream of a coalition with the business-friendly Free Democratic Party is looking shaky. And the beleaguered Social Democratic Party (SPD), the junior partner in the ruling right-left grand coalition, are grasping at the CDU losses as a welcome glimmer of hope that they might just manage to avoid complete humiliation in September.
Voters went to the polls in three states on what has been dubbed "Super Sunday." In both the eastern state of Thuringia and the western state of Saarland, the CDU suffered heavy losses, while it managed to hold on to the eastern state of Saxony. The Left Party, made up of former East German communists and disaffected Social Democrats from the west, saw major gains and is likely to join the SPD and the Greens in state governments in both Thuringia and Saarland. While the CDU is licking its wounds, the successes of the Left Party could well provide it with welcome ammunition to use against the SPD, who have long maintained they would never join the far-left party in a national coalition but are happy to govern with them at a state level.
Many in a somewhat shaken CDU are now calling on Merkel to change tactics in the run up to the federal election, saying she should be running a more aggressive campaign. Josef Schlarmann, who heads the small and medium-sized business alliance of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), was vociferous in his criticism of the campaign so far. "Merkel should spend the next four weeks with a clear concept for growth and job creation," he told the Financial Times Deutschland newspaper. "Up until now the party has not managed to make it clear to people how it will lead the country quickly out of the crisis."
'It's Time for More Emotions'
Manfred Weber, a member of the CSU executive committee, told the Berliner Zeitung that Merkel "has to differentiate herself more clearly from her political opponents." Meanwhile Philip Missfelder, a member of the CDU executive committee, called on the party to make the FDP their "exclusive coalition partner." Speaking to the Leipziger Volkszeitung he said this was the only way for the party to take on the red-red-green camp of Social Democrats, the Left Party and the Greens. And he added: "It is time for more emotions."
Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the honorary chairman of the FDP, who served as German foreign minister almost continuously from 1974 until 1992, echoed these sentiments. He told German broadcaster ZDF that the CDU had done badly in Thuringia and Saarland, "because the party had spread uncertainty about who it wanted to enter into a coalition with."
What is certain is the Sunday state elections have shaken up what had been a decidedly dull election campaign. While commentators on Monday welcome that fact, most are still convinced that in the end Merkel will continue as chancellor.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The SPD has been lacking inner fire and successes it can point to, and it also lacks a big theme or a big dispute that it can have with the CDU. It has found a bit of success in this dress rehearsal for the federal election -- even if this success mainly consists of the fact that the CDU has done badly in Thuringia and Saarland. The winners there are not the SPD but the Left Party."
"And now the SPD has got an issue over which it can fight with the CDU -- its relationship to the Left Party. The party has been misguided so far on this issue and Steinmeier has to go on the offensive here. This is about red-red coalitions, something that have become the norm in eastern Germany. However the CDU treats them as democratic high treason, since it doesn't govern in any such coalitions with the Left Party. The CDU will now start a new red scare campaign. However, the SPD should not fear this, even if it entails accusations that it wants to rule with the Left Party at a federal level."
"The Left Party has now transformed itself from an east German party to a party that operates across the country. Steinmeier speaks with shame of coalitions with this party at a state level as if he were describing a visit to a brothel. ... The SPD is afraid of a public opinion that is in part formed by its own timid behavior."
"The SPD justification for rejecting a coalition at a state level lacks credibility. The SPD points to the Left Party's unreliability when it comes to foreign policy, such as its call for a withdrawal from Afghanistan or its rejection of the European Union's Lisbon Treaty. However, when it is very close to the CSU on the issue of Lisbon and on the issue of Afghanistan its view is not so different from the majority of the population. The most honest thing that Steinmeier could say would be that the SPD should try out the coalitions with the Left Party at a state level to see if a coalition at a federal level would be possible in four years or later. That would admittedly be a somewhat brave thing to do. But the SPD is not going to get much further without a bit of bravery."
The business daily Handelsblatt writes:
"As interesting as the individual results may be, anyone looking for a test election ahead of the federal election on Sept. 27 will be disappointed. The results in the three different states show above all how great a role regional and personality issues played in the vote."
"Nevertheless, the three results will have some affect in the run-up to the federal election. ... First, the SPD has not managed to create a genuine breakthrough. The votes that the CDU lost didn't go to the SPD but to the other parties."
"Secondly, the CDU may be battered but it won't be panicking in the final weeks of the campaign. The high losses were within the bounds of expectations -- even if it means that in the end it may lose two CDU governors. But it was the standing of three leading candidates that had a great impact in the state elections and at a federal level Angela Merkel has high approval ratings."
"The third important factor is the turnout. There was an obvious increase in participation where people had the feeling they were faced with a real political choice. In Saarland and in Thuringia there was something like a real battle between two opposing camps. In Saxony, on the other hand, the voters were 'only' really deciding whether the CDU would go into coalition with the SPD or with the FDP, and that was reflected in a lower mobilization of voters."
"Perhaps this is the true lesson of this election day. It is obviously not important whether a campaign is considered 'boring' or not. This seems to imply the strange idea that politics should above all be 'entertaining.' What is much more important is that people are presented with a choice between clear alternatives."
"That should give the parties food for thought. The new arbitrary nature of coalition-building by which the CDU and the SPD will form governments with Greens, the FDP or each other may have created new political options but it leaves the voters with a feeling of helplessness."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"The CDU (in Thuringia and Saarland) lost heavily -- but only from an unusually high starting point. The losses are just a swing of the pendulum and in Thuringia they were so heavy because Governor Althaus did not cut much of a figure in the campaign. The lesson the voters have taught the CDU does not equate to a clear instruction to form a government that includes the SPD, Left Party and the Greens. A red-red-green coalition would not come about due to its own strength but rather due to the CDU's weakness."
"The Greens should think carefully about whether they want to be part of such a constellation. They are at their core a bourgeois party. And they call themselves 'Alliance90/The Greens' in memory of the fact that the civil rights movement in the former East Germany forms part of the party. Can this party be responsible for going into coalition with their heirs of Erich Honecker (the last president of East Germany)?"
"It is time that the FDP and the Greens try out governing together. Meanwhile, for Merkel the lesson from Sunday is clear: A coalition with the FDP alone at a federal level is far from secure."
The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"State elections are not a kind of opinion poll for the whole country. In Thuringia Governor Dieter Althaus' attempt to use his skiing accident in the election campaign did not go down well. In Saarland Oskar Lafontaine helped the Left Party into the saddle. The SPD had such a terrible result in Saxony in 2004 that further substantial losses there were hardly possible. All of these regional peculiarities change nothing about the fact that Angela Merkel is more popular than Frank-Walter Steinmeier and that the only way she would fail to be re-elected would be if she were filmed robbing a supermarket."
"The only thing that is certain is that nothing is certain. If the Greens were to do a bit better and the FDP a bit worse then a CDU-Green coalition would be within the realms of the possible -- mathematically. What is clear is there is now a five-party system, which in the end could actually mean a return to the grand coalition. The irony is that this would suit the chancellor perfectly. Nothing could be better for someone like Merkel, who is so careful to maintain a cross-party image,than to govern for another four years without an opposition. ... However, for the SPD a rerun of the grand coalition could mean its relegation to the level of a second-choice party. That is what one calls a pyrrhic victory."
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