The First of Seven Elections
The result of the Hamburg elections last week reminds us of that old saying: Where you stand is where you sit. While the Social Democrats are jubilant with winning an absolute majority in the city-state, Chancellor Merkel’s party’s serious loss was attributed by CDU leaders to local issues that were not applicable at the national level.

Hamburg is a wealthy harbor city with a long Social Democratic tradition. Helmut Schmidt was a successful interior minister there, and that served as a launching pad for his national career. Despite this history, the city-state has been occasionally run by a CDU-led government, most recently alone since 2004 and then in a coalition with the Green Party as of 2008. Yet because the CDU Mayor Ole von Beust decided suddenly in the summer of 2010 to quit, leaving an unprepared successor holding the bag, the CDU lost the city’s confidence and, as a result, the election.

Excited SPD, Concerned CDU
Despite the victory, it is too early for the Social Democrats to think they are on a political roll. With six more state elections ahead this year, there is a long way to go to take stock of the political mood in Germany. And it is by far too early to draw conclusions about the next national elections scheduled for the fall of 2013.

Chancellor Merkel might be somewhat concerned about the CDU loss in Hamburg – their poll result of 21.9 percent represents the CDU’s worst result in the city-state since World War II – but she has more reason to focus on the more important state elections coming up in the larger states of Saxony-Anhalt on March 20 and Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate on March 27. Elections in these states can have much more of an impact on the national environment, as their respective population sizes and issues can be seen through a wider lens than that of Hamburg.

Forecasting the Election Year
In Saxony-Anhalt, the retirement of Minister-President Wolfgang Böhmer has opened the door to aspiring leaders Reiner Haseloff (CDU) and Jens Bullerjahn (SPD), who would like nothing more than to avoid another CDU-SPD ‘grand coalition’ in the government. Currently, the SPD looks likely to retain its position in the majority, but whether that will be in a coalition with the CDU, the Left Party, or the Left Party and the Greens remains to be seen. Another victory here for the SPD on March 20 would add to the momentum gained in Hamburg.

A CDU loss of leadership in Baden-Württemberg, however, would be a serious loss for Merkel’s position as chairman of the party but also an even greater loss for the liberal Free Democrats and their leader Guido Westerwelle. But that is not likely to happen: Stefan Mappus looks set to continue on as the youngest Minister-President in Germany as Baden-Württemberg is a conservative state with an economy that is doing very well given its strong manufacturing base, including the home of Daimler. The recent demonstrations against the building of a new train station in Stuttgart [see this earlier At Issue] made for some dramatic scenes but most of the Baden-Württemberg voters do not live in Stuttgart and will probably revert to their usual political habits at election time. Even if the CDU-FDP governing coalition takes some losses, they should remain in power.

Voting on the same day, the neighboring state of Rhineland-Palatinate has been in the hands of the Social Democrats (in coalition with the FDP until 2006) since the early 1990s and that will not change either. Minister-President Kurt Beck remains popular and the state is also doing well economically; booming high-tech and pharmaceutical companies result in Rhineland-Palatinate having the highest rate of exports among all Länder.

There then come elections in the states of Bremen (late May) and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (September); no change is expected in either of those states, but some uncertainty surrounding the outcomes remains. And then there is Berlin in September, where there is a contest between the governing SPD Mayor Klaus Wowereit and his Green opponent Renate Künast in the September elections. As in the earlier elections, no change is expected there either.

What Does This Mean for Chancellor Merkel?
So at the end of the run, Chancellor Merkel will be looking primarily at some losses in the Bundesrat, the upper chamber representing the sixteen states, where the Hamburg loss will reduce her room for maneuver in getting some legislation passed over the next two years. But that alone will not change her command of the government which remains intact. Currently there are not any viable rivals to her within her party, or her coalition. The closest potential competitor, Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, is stuck in a flap surrounding his doctoral dissertation and accusations of plagiarism have clearly blotted his marker a bit, but that will presumably be temporary. Even if he was to resign over it – which is unlikely – his next stop would be to become Minister-President of Bavaria, which could be a platform to consider running for the chancellorship down the road. At the moment, the Chancellor needs the support of zu Guttenberg’s party, the CSU, to maintain momentum in the coalition government during the next two years, and as such she has demonstrably stated her support for the Minister to date. After zu Guttenberg, the CDU lacks any players with the political heft to challenge Merkel, so it seems that within the party her position is stable.

Chancellor Merkel would also like to see her coalition partner, the FDP, gain more strength in the coming elections after a horrible year in 2010. While the FDP finally made it back into the Hamburg Parliament as an opposition party, it has lost an enormous amount of support in a short period of time since the last national elections in 2009. Since the Hamburg elections suggest that a coalition between the CDU and the Greens is not very tenable, certainly at the national level for now, Merkel remains dependent on the FDP’s support to steer her agenda. How strong the FDP will be two years from now is anyone’s guess; the same holds for the other parties, all of which have to cope with increasingly unpredictable voters who are concerned about the economics of their personal situation as well as that of the euro zone as a whole.

The Importance of the Economy
No doubt six more state elections this year are attention-grabbers during 2011, but Merkel will be looking to maintain a grip on the impressive economic momentum Germany currently is enjoying beyond this year, which she can at least partially take credit for as chancellor. With that card to play, the regional elections this year are not as imposing as some have suggested. In the end, voters are unlikely to reject the Chancellor’s party at the federal level as long as they continue to experience growth – and so long as they don’t feel that they are footing the bill for other euro members’ excesses. The stability in the euro zone should be of much more importance to Merkel, as trouble here has the potential to really unleash voter anger. Her upcoming efforts in Brussels [see this essay from Ulrike Guerot] will go a long way to determining the future of the euro zone, and with it Germany’s economy.

In any case, this year may offer seven measurements of different German concerns around the country. But what the political barometric pressure will look like in 2013 is as impossible to predict as the weather itself. While the other parties have much to gain by chipping away on the regional level, for now, Merkel will be able to survive the storm of the Land elections and come through no worse for wear. That all can change in a heartbeat, however, if the economy falters. For that reason, the Chancellor’s focus should be on guiding the economy through the turmoil: Her political future – and maybe that of her party – is riding on it.


This essay appeared in the February 24, 2011, AICGS Advisor.