Normally, the only people who describe the results of sub-national, or Land, elections in Germany as ‘sensational’ are the winners of such polls. However, in the case of the elections held on 27 March 2011 in the states of Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg, the use of this adjective, for once, seems justified. For the results, which saw the Greens increase their share of the vote strongly in both states to score 15.4 and 24.2 percent respectively, have turned conventional political wisdom in Germany on its head. In particular, due to the Greens dropping the SPD into third place in Baden-Württemberg, Germany looks set to have its first Green Minister-President ever in Winfried Kretschmann – and the first Minister-President who is not from the CDU/CSU or SPD since the late 1950s.

The immediate reason behind this shift is clear: In a country where the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster left deep scars, the ongoing problems at the Fukushima nuclear reactor in Japan were always going play into the hands of the Greens and their traditionally anti-nuclear power platform. Turnout was up in both states, with voters pinpointing energy policy as a key factor in their decision. In that context, Chancellor Merkel’s recent volte-face on her government’s original plans to extend the lifespan of Germany’s own nuclear power stations looked to be a fairly cynical electioneering ploy, which arguably ended up benefiting the Greens rather than the CDU.

But local factors were at play, too. In recent months, politics in Baden-Württemberg had been defined by growing public opposition to the CDU-FDP Land government’s plans to completely demolish and relocate the central train station in Stuttgart (the so-called Stuttgart 21 project), and the Greens had been successful in putting themselves at the political head of this opposition movement. What is more, with its large and prosperous university towns such as Freiburg, Heidelberg, and Tübingen, the Greens have always been strong in Baden-Württemberg, and rather more bourgeois than their more radical counterparts in Hessen or Berlin. That in turn made it easier for disaffected CDU and FDP voters to pick them as an alternative.

So what conclusions can we draw about the parties’ respective performances?

First, the Christian Democrats (CDU) performed very poorly in states which have traditionally been strongholds of Catholic conservatism. In Rhineland-Palatinate, the CDU had consistently headed the state’s government for 44 years between 1947 and 1991, before losing power to an SPD-led coalition. But in Baden-Württemberg, the CDU had been in power, albeit sometimes in coalition with either the FDP or SPD, without interruption since 1953 – a massive 58 years. Therefore, the fact that the CDU failed to usurp the former state’s rather tired SPD government with its now-veteran SPD Minister-President Kurt Beck is bad enough; but to lose office in Baden-Württemberg is a bitter blow indeed.

Even so, Chancellor Merkel’s position continues to look somewhere between safe and unassailable, largely because of the complete lack of any credible alternative. Since she became CDU party leader in 2000, and leaving aside the self-inflicted fate of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, all her potential rivals have either retired, given up, or been outmaneuvered by her. That said, her authority has taken an undoubted hit and may not recover for a while; fortunately for her, there are no more Land elections scheduled between September 2011 and spring 2013 – a period of around eighteen months.

Second, the FDP fared little better, falling short of the 5 percent hurdle necessary to achieve representation altogether in Rhineland-Palatinate, and only squeaking home with 5.3 percent in Baden-Württemberg. This comes on top of the result in Saxony-Anhalt last week, where the FDP also failed to secure representation. Indeed, in many ways, it was the FDP’s poor performance in Baden-Württemberg, where it lost more than half its share of the vote, that brought down the government as a whole in that state. Given that, it was hardly surprising Guido Westerwelle’s position as party leader should come under renewed and sustained pressure, and on 3 April, he bowed to the inevitable and declared his intention not to seek a further term of office at the upcoming FDP party congress in Rostock from 13-15 May.

Meanwhile, the results confirm that the SPD remains stuck in the doldrums, notwithstanding a strong performance recently in Hamburg. Despite the incumbency bonus in Rhineland-Palatinate, it lost almost ten percentage points and only just barely remained the largest party. In particular, its complete failure to capitalize on dissatisfaction with the CDU in Baden-Württemberg will set alarm bells ringing at party HQ, as will the fact that it has been relegated to third place by the Greens for the first time in a sub-national election. With 30 months to go before the next federal election in September 2013, it has much ground to cover before looking like a plausible alternative to a CDU/CSU-FDP government that has, so far, struggled to get out of the starting blocks.

But the Greens are the party of the moment. By knocking the SPD down to third place for the first time, they have underlined their potential not just to take away votes from the SPD at the margins, but to challenge the Social Democrats for supremacy on the center-left. Of course, it benefited hugely from external events and once the elation over the party’s result has worn off, it faces a huge challenge in Baden-Württemberg: it not only is entering office in that state for the first time ever, but it will also be the senior partner – with all the responsibilities that that entails.

Given that, watch carefully what the new Green-SPD government (and will we be getting used to that order of parties in the future?) sets out in its coalition agreement. For while Stuttgart 21 constitutes an easy target, of greater significance will be the future of EnBW, the local energy generating company and the third largest in Germany after E.ON and RWE. In late 2010, the CDU-FDP state government under the outgoing Minister-President Stefan Mappus effectively nationalized EnBW, which is now under shared ownership of the Land and a consortium of local authorities. With a party committed to expanding renewable energy sources now in overall political charge, this represents a huge opportunity to make a practical difference to energy provision in one of Europe’s industrial powerhouses.

Lastly, what does this all mean for the federal government’s prospects? In light of her failed attempt to regain the political initiative on nuclear power in the run-up to the election, expect Chancellor Merkel to become even more risk-averse than she has been so far. For the moment, with the German economy in full song, that is not such a problem, but once new problems arise, as they always do, the risk is that the government’s response may be slow, erratic, or both; moreover, this is likely to afflict not only domestic but also EU policy: Would-be sovereign-debt-defaulting members of the euro zone take note. The domestic politics of Europe’s largest member-state are therefore interesting once more.


Dr. Simon Green is Professor of Politics at Aston University, UK, and a frequent contributor to the Advisor.

This essay appeared in the April 7, 2011, AICGS Advisor.