Reading the tea leaves of Germany’s state (Land) elections becomes more interesting as national elections approach on the calendar. Although Chancellor Merkel does not face a challenge to a third term until 2013, this week’s election results in Saarland will serve as an initial bellwether for the political pundits looking for electoral signals.

Admittedly, Saarland’s results were somewhat predictable. The CDU’s leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, will remain minister president in a coalition with the Social Democrats for a second term. Also predictable were the miserable results for the FDP, which did not receive enough votes (only 1.2 percent) to remain in the Saarland parliament. This continues a trend of electoral humiliation for the FDP, the once praised junior coalition partner of Angela Merkel’s CDU. Having only received 267 more votes than the extreme-right NPD, the FDP will now be on the outside looking in at those parties that won parliamentary seats.

The Left Party, despite winning 9 seats, was not asked to form a coalition government. The Greens, with exactly 5 percent of the vote, made it in by a hair. Most surprising, however, were the Pirates, who garnered 7.4 percent of the vote. They now find themselves in a second state government, having already been successful in the Berlin state elections in September 2011. No one really knows what the Pirates’ platform means, other than transparency in all things–including the Internet. Nevertheless, the fact is that their supporters were drawn primarily from those under thirty, potentially foreshadowing things to come for this new actor on Germany’s political stage. The Pirates continue to confound the pundits and the other parties. They can influence the outcome of coalition options in the next two state elections. Clearly a protest outlet for frustrated voters, how far they can go remains uncertain. However, they represent a longer term trend in German politics, one that is marked by decreasing party loyalty and more swing voters at stake.

Party politics aside, another dimension of the Saarland elections worth noting is the confirmation of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as minister president–one of three women currently serving as head of state government in Germany (not to forget the woman who also currently serves as chancellor). Not too long ago, there was but one woman–Heide Simonis–who reached the position of minister president, in the state of Schleswig-Holstein.

Too Early to Tell

With the polls in Saarland closed, experts will inevitably try to explain the results in the greater context of next year’s national elections. The outcome in Saarland will be seen by some as a signal that Chancellor Merkel may be confronting the necessity of another coalition with the SPD following the national elections. That may prove to be a premature conclusion. Several key state elections still lie ahead: two in the coming weeks in Germany’s biggest Land, North Rhine-Westphalia, followed by Schleswig-Holstein, and then Lower Saxony next January. As is most often the case in politics, things can change dramatically for all parties between now and the national election.

To begin with, if the FDP continues to lose ground throughout Germany, it may not even be an option for the chancellor as a coalition partner next year. While it is far too early to rule the FDP out, failure to gain seats in the elections of North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein would prove disastrous for the party’s future. On the other hand, if the SPD continues to maintain its momentum, its options could include a coalition with the Greens, or perhaps even a three way coalition with the FDP (that is, if the FDP would even be seen as a viable partner at that time). This situation for the SPD, however, assumes that the party can come up with a viable opponent for Merkel, one who can also bridge such a potential “traffic light” coalition–a tall order in both cases.

The Next Step

North Rhine-Westphalia represents the next big test for everyone. If the Social Democrats and Greens can secure re-election and their coalition with a stronger base, it will strengthen an SPD trend at both city and state levels. The Social Democrats now govern Hamburg, Berlin, Munich, and Frankfurt. They are also in coalition governments in eleven of the sixteen states. While the Greens have lost ground in the polls, they are part of four state governments, including Baden-Württemberg, where they have their first Green minister president. A positive outcome in North Rhine-Westphalia for both parties would serve to strengthen those pushing for a “red-green” coalition in the coming year.

Just as the primaries serve to sort out the candidates for the elections in the U.S., the endless parade of state and local elections in Germany act as signals and snapshots of the political mood, as well as the status of political parties and their leaders. The Saarland has a population of less than a million, and just over 60 percent of those people voted in the elections, so the interpretations are limited. There will be larger numbers in play when Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, goes to the polls on May 13.

For now, it is an open, long, and unpredictable race. Eighteen more months of political battles remain for all parties. With these battles comes a continuing conflict of election signals, and inevitable electoral spins. In the end, the meaning of these elections will be revealed on an election day in September 2013.

Wahl in Saarland, Forschungsgruppe Wahlen e.V.