The end of the ‘Schulz Surge’?

Most of the political world was looking to France on Sunday, but election hipsters were keeping an eye on Germany, too. The 2.3 million voters of Schleswig-Holstein (SH), Germany’s most northerly state, had the opportunity not just to pass judgement on politics in their home ‘Land’ but also to send (potentially a variety of) messages to national politicians based in Berlin.

The SPD bandwagon runs in to a roadblock

Trying to fathom out what precisely drives people to vote as they do keeps many a political scientist in business and no data is yet available to say with any certainty why Schleswig-Holsteiners voted as they did. The results (see here) nonetheless caused a few raised eyebrows; the CDU did well, as did the Greens and FDP.  The Linke and the AfD much less so.  The SPD experienced nothing short of a catastrophe.

What lessons can we draw from all this?  The first and most obvious is that the magic of the relatively new SPD leader, Martin Schulz, is no longer as strong as it once was. The SPD lost around 3.5 per cent of its vote share on its 2012 performance. Plus, this election is taking place at precisely the time when a party looking to de-throne a chancellor would normally hope to gain rather than lose ground. This is even more so when it’s remembered that in SH the Left Party is weak (polling around 3.5 per cent), the Pirates have vanished (meaning that around 7 per cent of the 2012 vote was up for grabs) and the AfD only stumbled over the finishing line and (just about) in to the Kiel parliament. SH in other words presents just the type of regional election where a budding chancellor-party would hope to be filling its boots; that was far from the case here.

The SPD can, and no doubt will, point to a series of reasons as to why they struggled. Their Prime Minister in the region, Torsten Albig, never really engaged with the campaign, often appearing to dodge confrontations with Daniel Guenther, his CDU challenger. He also gave a decidedly unhelpful interview where he made a serious of awkward statements about his own divorce; the boulevard press had a field day. But those explanations can’t gloss over the fact that the SPD was still hoping for much, much better.

The Merkel Magic

Angela Merkel’s CDU, of course, will claim both that Guenther was an excellent candidate and that her steady hand on the national tiller was recognised and will ultimately come up electoral trumps in the Autumn. Both of these claims may well be true.

Guenther is already being touted as a rising star within the party and his enthusiastic opposition to Albig certainly appeared to go down well. It is, however, also clear that Merkel’s style of muddling through and methodically dealing with whatever gets put in her way – be it domestic or international – continues to be attractive to many Germans. She is slowly winning back support from those worried about immigration and integration, largely as the refugee-issue loses some of its salience. Beyond that she remains a voice of reason in a world of chaotic politics – something that clearly does her no electoral harm at home. She may not be as popular as she once was, but three time election winners rarely are. Ask Tony Blair …

On to NRW

Schleswig-Holstein is nonetheless a small state and it’d be dangerous to draw too many conclusions from the result there. The FDP, for example, is highly unlikely to get double figures in the national election in September, and neither are the Greens. The Linke and the AfD will likely perform much better. In this case the devil is certainly not in the detail – it’s the general impression that matters most. And that general impression may well be that the SPD is not quite there in terms of challenging Merkel, and that Martin Schulz might subsequently be seeing the end of his political honeymoon. What the result in SH also does do is make next week’s regional election in Northrhein-Westfalen (NRW) even more important than it already was.

NRW is not only Schulz’s home state, it is the SPD’s political heartland. It’s also Germany’s most populous state.  The Social Democrats will be desperately hoping that that they can improve on the party’s 39 per cent (in 2012) and that they can send a message out that they really do mean business. As things stand they are sitting – at best – at around the mid-30 per cent mark in the polls in NRW.

The SPD can, in other words, talk away SH. It wouldn’t be fun but it would be doable. Talking away a bad result just 7 days later in NRW won’t be possible. And the surprisingly good showing that the CDU put up in SH will undoubtedly channel a few social democratic minds. Whether that is in time to impact the election on 14 May is another matter altogether.

Dan Hough

University of Sussex

 

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