The 2019 Regional Elections in the East: Small States, Big Impact
On September 1, the eastern German states of Brandenburg and Saxony will elect new state parliaments (Landtage). Both are relatively small states with 2.5 million and 4 million people respectively and a combined 8 (of 69) votes in the upper house, the Bundesrat. Under previously “normal” political circumstances, these elections would not merit very much attention. But, the current political situation in Germany is far from normal.
To provide a little background, several decades ago, two political scientists coined the term “second-order elections” to capture less important elections that voters do not take as seriously as “first order” ones. Turn-out rates are lower, issues are more particularistic, and less serious protest parties often win a share of the vote that they never would at a more powerful level. Usually the national level is the first-order election with regional, local, and supranational ones (European Parliament) being afforded second-order status.
Something has changed in German politics over the last ten to fifteen years that makes observers question whether regional elections are actually of lesser import.
But, something has changed in German politics over the last ten to fifteen years that makes observers question whether regional elections are actually of lesser import. Elections have become increasingly nationalized or at least the effects of regional elections have national repercussions—a trend that is apparent across Europe and the West more generally. Actually, already in the 1970s, authors had identified increasing nationalized elections at the Land level in Germany. I do think things are a little different in the most current period, likely due to the altered media environment in which immediate electronic reporting and social media create an insatiable demand for headlines, instant feedback, and constant debate. Moreover, the German case is unique because the composition of the upper house (Bundesrat) changes according to the composition of Land governments. Even small shifts in the partisan constellation of forces can have an impact on policy. And we should not forget that despite the federalism reforms of the mid 2000s, the Bundesrat can still veto 50 to 65 percent of legislation depending on the policy area.
There have been other instances of regional (Land) election results affecting national-level trends and decisions. Notably, in early summer 2005, the SPD lost control of the large state of North Rhine-Westphalia (and with that, control over the Bundesrat). Chancellor Gerhard Schröder then orchestrated a vote of confidence, which he lost, leading to early elections in September 2005 (about a year before the regularly scheduled poll). The narrow victory of Angela Merkel’s CDU and the ouster of Schröder from the Chancellery (although the SPD remained as junior partner in Merkel’s first grand coalition) was the result. More recently, poor CDU/CSU election results in Bavaria and Hesse in fall 2018 prompted Merkel to step down as leader of the CDU, unleashing a leadership context that eventually resulted in Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer gaining control of the party.
So what are the potential consequences of the election result in Brandenburg and Saxony? If polling is to be believed—and there are many recent instances of polling being off (Brexit, USA 2016, Australia 2019, Argentine primaries 2019)—there are two likely results with a variety of possible repercussions. Moreover, the most recent polls are revealing some last-minute shifts in voter preferences that could be weighty. In any case, first, the SPD continues to perform poorly, although perhaps not disastrously. In Brandenburg, which they have governed alone or as senior coalition partner since reunification, they are currently polling at 21-22 percent (up 4-5 points from a month ago) in a statistical tie with the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and down about 10 percent from 31.9 percent in 2014. As an aside, the Greens, long a non-entity in the eastern region, are polling well at 14 percent, mirroring national trends (but also down 2-3 points from early August). If the polling holds, the SPD under sufficiently popular Dietmar Woidke will lead the next government. If the AfD comes first, the SPD could still stay in power as it is almost certain that the AfD will not be able to form a coalition. In Saxony, where the SPD is currently the junior coalition partner, it is polling at 7-9 percent, down from 12.4 percent in 2014.
There may be some eastern-specific reasons for these polling results. The SPD was never strong in Saxony in the post-reunification period. In Brandenburg, it has governed for 29 years, so there may be some voter fatigue and a desire for change. Moreover, easterners have never had the same degree of party loyalty as (previously) in the west and there has been quite a bit of volatility in voters’ preferences and a by-now rather ingrained penchant for protest voting.
Easterners have never had the same degree of party loyalty as (previously) in the west and there has been quite a bit of volatility in voters’ preferences and a by-now rather ingrained penchant for protest voting.
Nevertheless, the larger, national-level problems with the party are also surely having an impact in this region. Unstable leadership (which predates Martin Schulz and Andrea Nahles), ideological incoherence from co-governing for 17 of the last 21 years, the decline of key recruitment and mobilization organizations like unions, and strong competition from the Greens and Left (especially in this region) are daunting challenges for the viability of the party. The series of electoral blows and low support (13-15 percent nationwide) and the seeming inability of the establishment to stanch the bleeding, could empower more extreme voices. If this happens, the SPD could leave the national coalition, prompting new elections and insisting on going into the opposition to properly recover and rebuild. Although no one (beside the AfD and maybe the Greens) wants early elections, the likelihood will increase if the polling is correctly predicting electoral results.
The other almost certain outcome will be the comparative victory of the right-wing Alternative for Germany. In Brandenburg, it is tied for first at 20-22 percent (versus the CDU at 17-18 percent). If this prognosis holds, it would have the first right to try to form a government. All other mainstream parties have ruled out a coalition with the right-wingers (for now), so an AfD-led government under far-right leader Andreas Kalbitz is unlikely. But, one can only imagine the self-righteous fury and sense of victimization the AfD will voice if this happens. This would only validate one of their central beliefs—that they have been unfairly targeted by “the establishment.” I could foresee this eventuality strengthening them even more nationally.
In Saxony, at 25 percent they are polling second, albeit 4-5 points behind the CDU (which has also governed uninterruptedly since 1990). It should be noted that this is 2 points below their second vote (Zweitstimme) result in the 2017 Bundestag election. Together, these two parties would have a clear majority of seats in the Landtag, but this possibility has been categorically excluded by popular current minister-president Michael Kretschmer. As in Brandenburg, coalition formation will be extraordinarily challenging in light of such an extreme multi-party system, excluding 25 percent of the seats (AfD) from the calculations. There may be a novel four-party coalition.
The AfD’s continued national strength at 13-15 percent (by the way, identical to the SPD) could cause a rethinking of counter-strategies especially by the CDU.
The national level consequences of the AfD’s probable results will likely be less impactful than the SPD’s. In all scenarios, the governing coalition will lose some support in the Bundesrat. However, it only controls 16 of 69 votes currently (the rest being neutral), so this will not alter political dynamics much. But, the AfD’s continued national strength at 13-15 percent (by the way, identical to the SPD) could cause a rethinking of counter-strategies especially by the CDU. A turn rightward will probably not happen under Chancellor Merkel, but if the party so decides, there may be a more concerted effort to oust her. Finally, the weakening economy and looming recession, coupled with Merkel’s recent rejection of the need for government stimulus and the results from Brandenburg and Saxony, might be what actually pushes her out early.
Merkel’s downfall in this manner would generate a degree of symmetry—maybe even karma. It was a similar series of events that led to Schröder’s ouster and Merkel’s rise. In any case, the small states of Brandenburg and Saxony could have an outsized impact on national politics. These regional elections are second-tier no more.
 Karlheinz Reif and Hermann Schmitt, “Nine Second-Order National Elections–A Conceptual Framework for the Analysis of European Election Results,” European Journal of Political Research Volume 8, Issue 1 (March 1980), pp. 3-44.
 Geoffrey Pridham, “A ‘Nationalization’ Process? Federal Politics and State Elections in West Germany,” Government and Opposition, Volume 8, Issue 4 (October 1973), pp. 455-472.
 Christian Stecker, “The effects of federalism reform on the legislative process in Germany,” Regional & Federal Studies Volume 26, Issue 5 (2016), pp. 603-624.