End of a journey
While the world was looking towards Paris, there was another election that was taking place on Germany’s coast. Germany’s Social Democrats lose control of a pivotal state, at the worst possible time.
Voters in the northernmost state of Schleswig-Holstein were called upon to elect a new Legislative Assembly (Landtag). For much of the election campaign, the outcome of the assembly election did not appear in doubt at all: It was widely presumed that Premier Torsten Albig would be able to form another coalition government with Alliance 90/The Greens and the Southern Schleswig Voters Association (the party of the Danish-speaking minority in the Southern Schleswig region). However, rather quietly, the Christian Democratic candidate for Premier, Daniel Günther, left behind a strong impression after the last TV debate. According to exit polls, voters began trusting the Christian Democrats on the issue of education – particularly after the party pledged to extend post-primary education from 8 to 9 years.
The Christian Democrats won 34% (+3.2%) of the vote, beating the hitherto governing Social Democrats who only obtained 27% (-3.4%). The big winners among the smaller parties were the liberal Free Democrats with 10.5% (+2.3%) and the Greens at 12.5% (-0.7%). Meanwhile, the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany barely made it past the legal 5% threshold, winning 5.5%. The Southern Schleswig Voters Association, legally exempt from the five-percent threshold, also suffered losses, ending up at 3%. (-1.6%). According to the exit polls, the Social Democrat/Green/Southern Schleswig Voters Association coalition has lost its majority.
Consequently, for the first time in years, the Christian Democrats have been able to shift a state’s balance of power and (most likely) won back the state premiership. Whilst coalition negotiations are likely to be complex, the Christian Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats are likely to form a new state government – especially as none of these three parties have excluded the possibility of cooperating with one another.
Besides the immediate formation of a new state cabinet, this result represents a clear setback for the federal Social Democrats who had hoped to retain control of Schleswig-Holstein. More importantly, after failing to win control of the small western border state of Saarland, this is the second defeat during the leadership of Martin Schulz, who took over the Social Democrats in mid-March. The former speaker of the European Parliament, hoping to succeed Angela Merkel (Christian Democrat) as Chancellor after the federal elections scheduled for late September, is now faced with the unenviable task of regrouping before his biggest test yet – the legislative assembly election in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, which is taking place on 14 May. A fresh opinion poll is signalling the possibility of a transfer of power in North-Rhine Westphalia – with the Christian Democrats having apparently caught up with the governing Social Democrats of Premier Hannelore Kraft for the first time in the entire election campaign.
If the current Social Democratic/Green coalition in North-Rhine Westphalia is voted out of office and replaced by the Christian Democrats next Sunday, this would send the worst possible signal for the upcoming federal election campaign. Losing Germany’s biggest industrial state would represent the worst possible start into the federal election campaign – such a major loss would raise questions about Schulz’s strategy, his leadership and his coalition options. Indeed, it appears clear that the momentary increase in sympathies for the federal Social Democrats – shortly after Schulz won the leadership – has completely dissipated.
Based on the current opinion polling for the federal elections, the Social Democrats will find it very difficult to form a new coalition – they are decisively behind the Christian Democrats in the battle for first place, and none of the most likely coalition options excluding the Christian Democrats (Social Democrat/Green, Social Democrat/Green/Free Democrat or Social Democrat/Green/Left Party) are currently obtaining majorities.
Meanwhile, Chancellor Merkel, whose leadership had been under fire during the height of the 2015 refugee crisis, appears to be firmly benefitting from real wind at her back. One statistic underlines this quite impressively: Of the voters who voted for the Christian Democrats in the Schleswig-Holstein assembly election, 46% stated that it was Chancellor Merkel’s leadership that was the principal reason for voting for the CDU. And another 28% asserted that they would not have chosen the Christian Democrats if she wasn’t the party’s leader. Evidently, German voters are not sending clues about wanting a new federal government – with Mrs Merkel looking increasingly likely to win a fourth term in office (after 2005, 2009 and 2013) – especially as the Alternative for Germany party is declining in popularity.
Plus ça change? We will know more next week.
Image by Flickr, European People's Party
This blog is published on Law Blogs Maastricht