The upcoming state election in Lower Saxony on January 20 is the opening note of Germany’s political campaign year. Each of the political parties are positioning themselves to interpret the results—whatever they may be—to shape the core of their campaigns over the next eight months.

Although Chancellor Angela Merkel enjoys high levels of personal popularity, her party—the CDU—could suffer a setback in this key election. According to current polls, the coalition government in Hannover, now consisting of the CDU and the Free Democrats (FDP), could be replaced by a new coalition between the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Green party.

One impact of that result would be a change in the power equation in the Bundesrat (the council of states), in which the chancellor would then be facing a majority of Social Democrats and Greens seeking to constrain her legislative agenda. But the more important result might be momentum gained behind the efforts of the SPD and the Greens to form a government in September and deny Angela Merkel a third term in office.

The party with quite possibly the most at stake in these projections is the FDP. An election setback can generate yet another convulsion over the party’s messengers, as well as over its message. Following its best election results in six decades in the last national elections of 2009, the FDP has continually lost ground. Aside from its coalition with Merkel in Berlin, the FDP is a coalition partner in just four state coalitions, and was turned out of government in key states such as North Rhine-Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg. The party that has been in national governments since the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949 seems to be losing out on its messages and messengers, but also in its membership.  In the past three years, twelve thousand members have resigned from the party’s ranks.

What is ailing the Liberal’s message to Germany? At a time when the call for state intervention is all-pervasive in Germany and throughout Europe in dealing with the current economic challenges, a party that stands for the iconic freedom of the individual to go his or her own way does not seem to be able to find a figure around which it can rally. The days of the FDP giants such as Otto Graf Lambsdorff or Hans Dietrich Genscher loom larger amidst the current squabbling over leadership of the party.  Over the past weekend, the internal debates got particularly nasty at an FDP conference in Stuttgart. FDP leader Phillip Rösler came under attack for the poor status of the party in the polls. Rösler’s fate now appears to be tied to the results in Lower Saxony’s elections—which also happens to be his home base.

But debates over messengers are also reflections of arguments over the very messages themselves. The Liberals are struggling with the need to convey a coherent brand of policies and positions within an arena in which political parties are increasingly shaped by personalities. In the past, Germans tended to vote more for party constellations regardless of the candidates.

That is changing. One sees a stronger trend in increasing personalized politics illustrated in the gap between Chancellor Merkel’s personal popularity and that of her party. One can also see the opposite problem for the Social Democrats in the personality of their candidate Peer Steinbrück,,whose personal image lags well behind Merkel—at least for now.

Meanwhile, the Greens are also marking their 30th anniversary on the national political stage and are hoping to return to Berlin as part of the governing coalition with the Social Democrats next fall. While they have moved the political needle in Germany in many ways over the last three decades, the fact that the other main political parties have absorbed some of their platforms challenges the Greens’ ability to sustain a base while also reaching out to a larger scope of voters.

The fact that the Greens managed to achieve—for the first time—ownership of a minister-presidency in Baden-Württemberg in May of 2011 and form a government with the Social Democrats as the junior partner speaks to their ability to meet that challenge—a fact now complemented by having a Green mayor of Stuttgart as a first among the major cities in Germany. If the Greens can form a government in Lower Saxony with the Social Democrats, it could move them closer to power in Berlin. However, the Greens do not have the charismatic leadership that carried them to Berlin the first time in the person of Joschka Fischer in 1998. They seek to rely more on their messages than their messengers today.

The two remaining political parties with stakes in the 2013 elections—the Left Party and the Pirates—will, according to all polls, not be a factor in the Lower Saxony elections as it looks now. Neither is expected to be able to secure enough votes to be represented in the state parliament. Whether they can affect the mathematics of coalition equations by attracting voters from the SPD or the Greens is an open question.

Following the January 20 election in Lower Saxony there will be a long period without such political weathervanes. The driving forces of the election campaign will be primarily the economic concerns of the voters as Germany moves into a year of slow growth and continued uncertainty on the euro stage.

The competing messengers with their contrasting messages about the best path forward will increasingly fill Germany’s domestic debates. It is far too early to make credible predictions about the late September elections. It is not, however, too early to predict that each of the messengers will need to make their messages not only plausible but persuasive. Neither is a given in the current political arena.

  • K Bledowski

    The author’s emphasis on the need to clearly differentiate between the messenger and the message is very applicable to the United States. In the period leading up to the presidential election, the American electorate paid too much attention to Republicans’ messengers and not enough to the Republican Party’s message.