In Brandenburg, A Last-Ditch Attempt for the SPD to Maintain Its Stronghold as Anti-Establishment Parties Surge

If the European elections were not a wake-up call for the collapsing Social Democratic Party in Germany, the election in the state of Brandenburg on September 1 is likely to definitively cement the party’s political crisis. Brandenburg, an East German state surrounding Berlin, will likely experience a new partisan constellation in its state government after an election that, while not shaped by policy issues, will certainly be shaped by the massive political shifts in the national German party landscape.

Among the East German states, Brandenburg has been a political anomaly since reunification: The SPD has won every election since 1990.

Among the East German states, Brandenburg has been a political anomaly since reunification: The SPD has won every election since 1990. Encompassing the suburban belt around Berlin and Potsdam, a large rural population, and a population working in or dependent on Germany’s last remaining (but soon-to-be phased-out) coal industries in the Lausitz region, Brandenburg’s electorate is comprised of varied demographics, with these three regions making up nearly 80 percent of the state’s population. The electorate in Potsdam, Brandenburg’s state capital and largest city located next to Berlin, is historically one of the most left-wing in the country. Its strong support for the Left, the Social Democratic, and—recently—the Green parties is similar to that of the rest of Berlin’s Speckgürtel, the towns and cities in the suburban area populated by commuters to Berlin and many voters who profit from proximity to the urban economy.

The rest of the state, however, tells a very different story, one that is more akin to the general trend of eastern German politics since reunification. While nearly the entire state has been an SPD-held stronghold since reunification, the historic base of the SPD—and the Left—in southern and western Brandenburg has not been suburban voters, but rather union members and industrial workers, including the population that has been left unemployed by a declining industry. These workers vote for parties that champion strengthened unions, better wages, and more employment and that promise to end the inequality and mediocre economic prospects the state has faced since reunification: Brandenburg has always had a lower GDP per capita than the German average, but while it began to catch up during the 1990s, its growth plateaued during the 2000s, and Brandenburg’s average income levels are the third-lowest in the country. Western and southern Brandenburg have unemployment levels around 6 to 8 percent, more than double the German average. As a result, resentment against the establishment is more commonplace, and only 16 percent of Brandenburg’s population is satisfied with the federal government.

Brandenburg’s demographic divide is evident in a direct comparison of the state’s two largest cities: Potsdam and Cottbus. In both cities, the SPD and Linke received more than 20 percent of the vote in local elections in 2014, but the demographic support of both parties varied. In Potsdam, located next to Berlin, the parties’ support bases consisted of educated suburban voters that are heavily exposed to Berlin’s economy. In Cottbus, a city that derives much of its power from the coal plants in the neighboring Lausitz, it was mainly those exposed to the industrial economy that voted for the two parties. Germany’s changing electoral landscape now has exposed the demographic divide. The Linke and SPD collapsed in both cities, but drifted in different directions. Many of Potsdam’s voters drifted to the Greens. Voters in Cottbus, on the other hand, left the left for the AfD.

Now that it has become increasingly difficult for a single party to unify Brandenburg’s divided demographics, voters have dispersed across the German party spectrum.

Now that it has become increasingly difficult for a single party to unify Brandenburg’s divided demographics, voters have dispersed across the German party spectrum, and all major parties except the FDP are polling between 15 and 20 percent. On aggregate, Brandenburg is not doing too badly compared to its neighboring states. Separate the Berlin Speckgürtel from the rural areas and former coal hotspots, however, and the state’s problems and economic anxiety become evident.

This demographic divide sets the stage for the upcoming election. Currently governed by an SPD-Left coalition under SPD minister-president Dietmar Woidke, Brandenburg’s problems–economic anxiety, a lack of infrastructure in rural areas, and the transition away from coal–have caught up to its governing administration, and voters are bitterly divided on potential solutions. The government isn’t necessarily unpopular, and Woidke’s approval rating stands at about 55 percent, but national trends and general frustration over political stagnation are transforming the state’s electoral landscape.

The election will likely not be dominated by policy. There are some major issues that seem to be of great concern to voters in Brandenburg—access to public infrastructure for rural voters, employment and the coal industry for the economically struggling, and education policy as a cross-cutting concern—but the campaign is dominated by rhetoric and optics. Whether parties are viewed as part of the establishment or as parties that will offer the disillusioned voters in Brandenburg a vaguely “better future” will make a substantial difference in their electoral result.

Whether parties are viewed as part of the establishment or as parties that will offer the disillusioned voters in Brandenburg a vaguely “better future” will make a substantial difference in their electoral result.

For this reason, the “red-red” coalition looks finished as both the SPD and the Left have dropped significantly in polls. The SPD’s collapse mirrors its national crisis, though it is even more pronounced here: Polls show the party losing nearly half of its 2014 electorate, going from 32 percent to well under 20 percent. The election is critical for the SPD as it clings to one of its last strongholds, but it may be a nail in the coffin of a party that has lost credibility in the minds both of working-class and university-educated voters. The Left, meanwhile, faces several problems that have led to its stagnation in polls, among them its loss of status as a credible anti-establishment party in the East. In 2009, then party leader Gregor Gysi noted with approval that the party was a catch-all party (Volkspartei) in the East, but it could be just this factor that is causing it to stagnate. The German electorate is increasingly moving away from the large catch-all parties; with the Left co-governing Brandenburg for ten years now, voters could be looking for a new protest and anti-establishment party to fill the gap.

The governing parties’ losses haven’t led to a surge for the third Volkspartei, either. While rural voters’ social conservatism historically ensured that the CDU maintained about 20 percent of the electorate’s support, the party has not capitalized on electoral shifts this time and has lost considerable momentum, going from 23 percent to roughly 16 percent in polls. It, too, faces limits as a firmly-established Volkspartei. Instead, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has entered the fray. Unsurprisingly given its increasing foothold in the East, the AfD is soaring in Brandenburg’s polls. Led in the state by Andreas Kalbitz, a member of the party’s far-right nationalist wing Der Flügel, the success of the AfD in Brandenburg arose much in the same way that it did throughout Germany, winning seats in Brandenburg for the first time in 2014 and profiting off anti-establishment, anti-immigrant, and populist rhetoric. The AfD came in first in Brandenburg in the European election in 2019. For the state elections, its fierce anti-immigrant rhetoric, though still prominent, is less of a cornerstone of the campaign as the issue is less of a concern in Brandenburg. Instead, the AfD has promised to restore national pride, bring back coal, and address the population’s frustrations—no matter what they are. Though not backed by specific policy, the AfD’s wide anti-establishment rhetoric has been very successful, and it may win a plurality for the first time in party history.

The AfD isn’t the only outsider profiting from the established parties’ collapse. The Green Party, long considered a political outsider in the East as it struggled to meet the 5 percent threshold, is pulling even with the Volksparteien in the polls. The Greens may not be what spring to mind when one thinks of anti-establishment parties; though they were founded as one, their competition on the far-left after the establishment of the Linke as well as their participation in the national government under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder instead gave them a solidly bourgeois, middle-class electorate. Given their status as outsiders, however, their recent uptick in union and elderly support, their campaign centered around championing movements like the mass-organized “Fridays For Future” student climate protests, and their self-portrayal as a counterforce to the AfD, the Greens, which just came in first in Potsdam during the EU elections, are rising to the task of siphoning protest votes from the university-educated, students, and suburbanites who are dissatisfied with the governing parties, but would never vote for the hard-right AfD.

With this outlook, coalition building will be a challenge. None of the coalitions that have carried mandates in Germany in the past look to win a majority in this election. An SPD-Left-Green or CDU-SPD-Green coalition could win a slight majority, but even then, these parties would win such a similar number of seats and carry such a small majority that no party will carry a stable governing mandate. Given the collapse of governing parties, their leaders may be reluctant to rise to the responsibility of governing under these circumstances. Things may be complicated further if the AfD wins a plurality, with no party willing to enter a coalition with it. Whether Brandenburg shifts toward the hard right, the SPD ekes out a plurality, or an established coalition wins just enough votes to form a government after all is difficult to say given how tight the polls are. However, the trends clearly indicate one thing: In Brandenburg, even more so than at the national level, the historical dominance of Volksparteien is not a useful indicator for this election as anti-establishment parties increasingly fill the gap.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Max Hammer

Research Intern

Max Hammer was a research intern at AICGS for the summer of 2019. He conducts research for current projects and for resident fellows, helps organize and document events, manages the database, and operates the front desk at AICGS.

Currently, Mr. Hammer is a first-year student at the London School of Economics in the UK, where he is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Politics and International Relations. His research interests include international human rights, populism and political radicalism in the European Union, and the role of China in international politics.

At the London School of Economics, Mr. Hammer is heavily involved with the university chapter of Amnesty International and edits a human rights journal documenting international human rights abuses. He has previously interned at the German news agency ARD’s foreign office in Washington, DC.