After a state election in Germany, the Social Democrats (SPD) lost—again; the Christian Democrats (CDU) won—again; and a strong showing by the liberal FDP has created a chance to rebuild a coalition government with the CDU in Düsseldorf…and maybe later this year in Berlin.
Not much of this scenario was expected as recently as four weeks ago, but the electoral environment in Germany is as unpredictable as it is throughout the rest of Europe. And politicians—winners and losers—are not completely sure how they can evaluate their respective status from one election to the next.
Despite three consecutive regional electoral victories in the past three months, the CDU (and Angela Merkel) cannot be completely confident that the big prize in September—leading the coalition government in Berlin—will be easy to sustain. But there are trends.
The Hat Trick of the CDU
In ice hockey or soccer, three goals scored by one player in one game is called a hat trick—what the CDU just achieved if one considers the three elections prior to the September 24 election as one game. The respective regional CDU leaders in Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein, and now North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) lead the governments in Saarbrücken, Kiel, and Düsseldorf. The coalitions may vary, but the trend must look good to the chancellor.
Merkel herself did not score the goals. They occurred in three very different states in Germany for different reasons.
In Saarland, a CDU Minister-President was reelected—with emphasis. In Schleswig-Holstein and in North Rhine-Westphalia, the CDU defeated an SPD-led coalition. In all three cases, the victory was driven primarily by local issues such as educational standards, crime, or infrastructure reform.
Of course, the fact that in all three elections the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party successfully played directly on the immigration fears of voters to gain representation in the state parliaments was expected. But in none of the thirteen parliaments where it holds seats will that party be a part of any coalition. It remains an isolated extremist platform. That will also hold true if the party, as expected, will be represented in the federal parliament after the September elections.
The defeat of the SPD in the NRW elections was particularly painful for the party in this stronghold state (the most populous) since 1949. The appearance of new federal SPD leader Martin Schulz has been less effective than was hoped, and these losses are not encouraging for the face-off with Merkel later in the year.
It was a mixed picture for the smaller parties. The Green Party sustained its presence in Düsseldorf albeit with losses. It did not even make it into the state parliament in Saarland, but did pick up support in Kiel and could be part of a three-way coalition with the CDU and the FDP in that smaller arena. As for as the Left Party (Die Linke), it also remains “left out” as a player, seemingly left out of the parliament in Düsseldorf after losing traction in Kiel and not qualifying in Saarland
In contrast, the FDP did very well in Kiel and now again in Düsseldorf—a trend that will possibly serve as a signal to voters that they are once again a viable option for those unhappy with the two larger parties. Should a coalition with the CDU and the FDP be possible in Düsseldorf, it would send a signal that such a coalition might be possible again in Berlin. In any case, it looks as if its embarrassing exit from Berlin four years ago might be ending with a return to the Bundestag in September.
It Isn’t Over ’til It’s Over
But the game is not over for anyone—even after a CDU hat trick. The SPD has suffered three consecutive defeats and needs to figure out why its message is failing and what can be done to rekindle the fire. Much of this responsibility sits squarely on the shoulders of Martin Schulz. He needs to deliver more persuasive reasons why he deserves to be chancellor—and not just because he is a new face in the race.
The fact that there have been two governing coalitions formed by the CDU/CSU and the SPD in eight of the last twelve years is evidence that the SPD can—indeed must—take responsibility for what has gone well…but also what has failed. In both of those coalitions the SPD was the junior partner; how an SPD-led coalition would govern needs to be spelled out.
But there is also no reason for Chancellor Merkel to take anything for granted over the next four months. She is attempting to win an election facing voters that will be looking for a reason to give her a fourth term. There will be a certain degree of exhaustion with her as chancellor after twelve years. She carries responsibility for what has gone well, as well as for what has gone wrong in the past twelve years.
She and her party will need to deliver a message of why this next four years will be more than just more of the same.
If she wants to know what happens when you don’t find an answer to that, ask Hillary Clinton.
Dr. Jackson Janes is the President of AICGS. Follow him on Twitter @DrJJanes.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.