Clear Horizons, or Choppy Waters? Navigating to September 24
“Clear horizon, strong heart,” or, as they say in Schleswig-Holstein, “Klaar Kimming, Rüm Haart.” The slogan frequently seen on flags flying over the North Sea islands might as well be flying over the Kanzleramt after the elections in Schleswig-Holstein on May 7. Chancellor Merkel’s party picked up both support and a new champion who could be the state’s next Minister-President. Daniel Günther’s success also signaled that the three-term chancellor might now be headed to her fourth victory in September. The elections in the north of Germany followed an election in another smaller state a few weeks ago—in Saarland—which was also a victory for Merkel’s CDU. And in both elections, the Social Democrats suffered setbacks despite the appearance of their new leader, Martin Schulz, who will be facing Merkel in the campaign in the coming months. Schulz seemed to electrify his base when he was presented as the candidate to oppose Merkel earlier this year. But that has not translated into electoral success so far in these regional elections.
While Saarland reelected a CDU Minister-President, the elections in Schleswig-Holstein have presumably eliminated a long-serving Social Democrat, Torsten Albig, as Minister-President in Kiel. That is, unless one of the two options of forming a government results in a so-called “traffic light coalition” (red, yellow, green) was to emerge with a Social Democratic leader. The Social Democrats could form a majority with the Greens and the Liberals (FDP), and while the Greens may prefer that option, it is not very persuasive to the Liberals who see their future more aligned with Merkel’s party. The CDU also has the option of forming a coalition with the same two parties. Which way the Greens and the Liberals are swayed has a lot to do with how they both see their chances in the national government emerging out of the September 24 elections. The only remaining option is for the CDU to form a coalition with the Social Democrats, mirroring the current national coalition in Berlin. That appears to be a far less desirable option for the SPD—and probably for the CDU as well.
There are two other actors on the stage in Kiel. After Sunday, the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) now has a presence in twelve state parliaments as it continues its march toward federal representation in Berlin after the September elections. And the small party representing the Danish minority in Schleswig-Holstein, the South Schleswig Voters’ Association (SSW), will have three votes in the state parliament to be wooed. While they played a role in helping the Social Democrats and the Greens form a coalition five years ago, their strategic role will likely be less influential now. Still, a three-way party coalition again seems likely.
Like all regional elections, Schleswig-Holstein illustrates the old saying that all politics is local. The concerns of voters in the north of Germany in a state of less than 3 million may be both similar and different to those in a state of 18 million in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). We’ll see what happens after NRW holds its elections on May 14. The government in Düsseldorf is currently another Social Democrat-Green coalition, but whether it survives after May 14 is not assured. Here again, a three-way coalition may emerge. And that may set the stage for a trilateral coalition in Berlin after the September election.
The political constellations are in flux. What parties stand for, who articulates their messages, and to whom voters are drawn—these dimensions of politics are less predictable, more volatile. And yet, amid these changes in Germany, it is highly likely as of now that Angela Merkel will emerge in a few months to win a fourth term in office. As in Kiel, the results in NRW could look to her like Klaar Kimming. Then again, the wind changes quickly on the North Sea—as it does in politics. Both take a strong heart to navigate.