This essay was also published in The National Interest on January 23, 2013.
As President Obama began his second term in the White House this week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is now wondering whether she can win a third term in next September’s national elections.
The results of this week’s regional elections in the state of Lower Saxony are not reassuring for Merkel. Her party—the Christian Democrats—lost the election and no longer control the state government, which it had ruled with the Free Democrats for over a decade. With only a single vote giving them a razor-thin majority, the Social Democrats (together with the Green party) will now govern Lower Saxony, one of Germany’s largest states. But the elections also widen the political chess game to be played out over the next eight months for both the winners and the losers, and make predictions for September that much harder.
While everyone expected a close race in Lower Saxony between Merkel’s Christian Democrats and rival Social Democrats, the main surprise came from the smaller parties—the Free Democrats and the Greens.
The Green party picked up a significant increase of seats in the state parliament in Hanover. The Free Democrats scored a smaller increase but they managed to defy all the polls prior to the election, which had predicted a much worse result in the wake of a very public and embarrassing debate within the party over its current chairman and an incoherent political platform. In fact, the Greens have occupied the political space formerly held by theFree Democrats during the past few years. In the state of Baden Württemberg, for example, they now govern with the Social Democrats as their junior partner. With an additional demonstration, winning the office of Lord Mayor of Stuttgart, the Greens have become a major force in the urban centers in Germany.
The Christian Democrats lost political ground, undercutting their chance to hold on to power in Hanover despite the slight pick-up by the Free Democrats. Those losses were a result of last minute tactical voting by supporters of Merkel’s party who wanted to save the Free Democrats and the coalition government in Hanover. That loss now follows many other conservative losses in other states during the past few years.
Now Chancellor Merkel is facing a very tricky political landscape as she calculates her odds to win a third term. She is far more popular than the party she leads, but she cannot seem to translate that support to the state level. The coalition she leads in Berlin with the Free Democrats is duplicated in only a few other states now.
The Free Democrats have fallen significantly in the national polls since the last parliamentary election in 2009. Thus she cannot count on a strong coalition partner with whom she can govern unless the Free Democrats can pull themselves together between now and September. The unexpected bounce from this election may not be enough to keep them going until September.
Merkel is being challenged by her old coalition partner Peer Steinbrueck, who is the Social Democrats’ candidate in the September elections. Since his nomination a few months ago, Steinbrueck has made a number of mistakes in his campaign appearances and received very bad press, leading some Social Democrats to think they picked the wrong candidate. But now the win in Lower Saxony might offer Steinbrueck another chance to regain his footing—and that of the party.
The Social Democrats and the Greens state that they want to form a coalition in Berlin to govern the country again, as they did for seven years when Gerhard Schroeder and Joschka Fischer were partners. Merkel is sticking by her public desire to continue her coalition with the Free Democrats, who in turn affirm the same commitment. But if her own party can sustain sufficient momentum between now and September, she has other options. If a coalition with the Free Democrats won’t work, she can consider another coalition with the Social Democrats, as she had in her first term. That assumes the Social Democrats and the Greens can’t make a governing coalition. That also assumes that neither opposition partywould be inclined to approach the Free Democrats about forming a three-way coalition—a very unlikely scenario.
Given the electoral success the Greens are enjoying, there is speculation that Merkel might consider a coalition with them if the numbers add up. But that equation seems unlikely and probably needs additional time to gather support from either side before it could be viable.
There is one more regional contest just before the September elections. In Bavaria, the Christian Social Union—Merkel’s sister party located only in that state—and the Free Democrats govern in a coalition. Results there could influence the profile of the parties as Germans prepare to elect their Chancellor two weeks later. In the meantime, the ongoing debates about the euro and Germany’s economic situation will continue to be the decisive factors. Energy prices will be debated as they increase. Perhaps the pending withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan might play a limited role.
Yet eight months is a long time in politics, and much can happen in Germany, Europe and indeed the many places where German elections seem less relevant: Mali, Syria or Iran.
For now Merkel has no rivals in her own party and she is cruising along at over 60 percent in the polls. She has a partner in the Free Democrats that depends on her supporters strategically voting to sustain that coalition. Even if the Greens maintain their double-digit momentum after Lower Saxony, the Social Democrats still need to increase their traction if they want to win in September. Otherwise their primary alternative to return to government would be to again accept Merkel as the senior partner in a coalition, a scenario many Social Democrats cannot stand.
Much will depend on the ability of Peer Steinbrueck to steer his party and a larger swath of increasingly undecided German voters in his direction and away from Angela Merkel. While he has the expertise and a verbal rapier in debates, Steinbrueck does not exude empathy. As of now, Merkel owns the trust factor in this race. Peer Steinbrueck will have to earn it.
With little competition from the Left and Pirate parties, the race primarily comes down to Merkel and Steinbrueck, two former partners who are now rivals for the same office. It will be a clear clash of styles and substance, but it will also clarify how Germany’s domestic debates influence the choices ahead.
The photo finish in Lower Saxony this week suggests that the race toward September could end in another nail-biter evening. It would not be the first time, as Angela Merkel andmany of her predecessors can confirm. Just as the presidential election in the United States was a very close and unpredictable horse race, the next eight months in Germany will see a similar competition to run Berlin.