The dust has now settled on the most recent German regional election in Lower Saxony, so now is perhaps a good time to stand back and reflect on what we can learn from the results. Benjamin Hoff, Minister for Cultural, Federal and European Affairs in the Land government of Thueringen and Practitioner Fellow at the Sussex Centre for Study of Corruption reflects on what lessons can be drawn.
Up until a few years ago, government coalitions between the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and the Greens (BÜNDNIS 90/DIE GRÜNEN) were normal, day-to-day business – at least in the states of Western Germany. Today, this model is considered an exception – a circumstance that can be attributed to two developments:
- The pluralisation of the party system. More parties mean that 2-party coalitions between a large and a small party can rarely achieve the required majority of votes.
- The increased readiness of the Greens to enter into a coalition with the Christian Democrats (CDU). While so-called Black-and-Green coalitions have existed on a municipal level since the 1990s, they have not appeared on state level until the 2000s. Today, the Greens and the CDU rule in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Hesse – soon probably even at the federal level. Moreover, there have been coalitions between the CDU, the Greens, and the Liberals in the states of Hamburg and Saarland.
The Need for Early Elections in Lower Saxony
By and large, the Red-Green coalition in Lower Saxony had run smoothly since 2013. While it had only held the majority in parliament by one vote, there were hardly any crises. All the more surprising was the announcement by Green MP Elke Twesten at a press conference with CDU opposition leader and group chairman Björn Thümler to resign from the party and from the state parliament group Bündnis 90/Die Grünen. This change of party was motivated by the fact that the Greens did not intend to field the politician in the coming election. The coalition therefore lost its majority in the heat of the federal election campaign and it soon became clear that there needed to be early state elections in Lower Saxony and that they’d have to be right after the federal elections.
Historical observers might have been reminded of the events that occurred in Lower Saxony between 14 January and 6 February 1976. At that time, the SPD also ruled with a tight majority of just one vote. Even though the CDU had for the first time since 1949 outstripped the SPD at the state elections of 1974 and could provide 77 elected representatives, the SPD (67 seats) had been able to form a coalition with the liberal party FDP (11 seats). Given the smooth collaboration between the Social Democrats and the Liberals, Prime Minister Alfred Kubel (SPD), who had held office since 1970, intended to hand over his office to finance minister Helmut Kasimier halfway through the term.
However, when the state parliament came together on 14 January 1976 to elect the prime minister, things went, to use the vernacular, pear-shaped. Surprisingly, Kasimier only received 75 votes, while opposing CDU candidate Ernst Albrecht received 77 votes – three ballot papers were invalid.
This was nothing short of a sensation: when the parliament tried again to vote for a Ministerprasident three votes remained invalid and at least one member of the ruling coalition voted for opposition leader Ernst Albrecht. Albrecht therefore achieved an absolute majority, with 78 vs. 74 votes. He became, to the shock of many, Ministerpraesident.
Yet it wasn’t long before Lower Saxonian parliamentarians were again voting for a Ministerpraesident. On 6 February 1976 increased his support in parliament, gaining 79 votes. To date, it is not known which deputy from the SPD/FDP coalition voted for Ernst Albrecht. Albrecht went on to remain prime minister until 1990 (when he was replaced by Gerhard Schroeder) – just as unknown is the person who, on 17 March 2005, refused to vote for Heide Simonis, the four-time SPD Prime Minister from Schleswig-Holstein, and consequently paved the way for CDU opposition candidate Harry Carstensen to enter the state chancellery.
Prime Minister Stephan Weil (SPD) is Bucking the Trend
Why is all this relevant? Given the increasingly poor performance of the SPD and its dramatic defeat at the federal elections on 27 September 2017, all observers were convinced that Elke Twesten’s change of party would be the final nail in the coffin of Lower Saxony’s Social Democrat Prime Minister Stephan Weil.
But Weil was able to turn around the ten-percent lead of the CDU in surveys in his favour and win the elections in a rapid finish, And it looks like Weil will be able to remain Prime Minister – even though his coalition with 68 deputies is one vote short of a majority.
There are two possible coalitions under SPD leadership:
- A coalition between SPD and CDU (so-called “Grand Coalition”);
- A coalition between SPD, FDP and the Greens (so-called “Traffic Light Coalition”).
With 73 seats, a “Jamaica coalition” between CDU, FDP, and Greens would also have been conceivable. With this option, however, victor Stephan Weil would have been relegated to the backbenches. The Greens, Weil’s former coalition partner, have explicitly rejected this scenario.
If SPD and CDU get together because the FDP refuses to enter a traffic light coalition, there would be a relaunch – rather than a premiere – of a constellation that in Lower Saxony most recently existed under Georg Diederichs from 1965 to 1970. Again, it is the irony of history that the Grand Coalition back then was formed because the FDP refused to continue the collaboration between Social Democrats and Liberals (which had been practised since 1961).
Strong SPD thanks to Stefan Weil
With 36.9 percent, the SPD achieved its best result in almost 20 years. It gained 4.3 percentage points – still just 11 percentage points behind its performance in 1998 where it achieved a whopping 47.9 percent.
In a survey conducted by the Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, 43 percent of the respondents believe that the SPD has the greatest competence when it comes to social justice. 18 percent believe the CDU to be competent in this field, while 11 percent regard the left-wing party DIE LINKE as competent in this regard. However, the SPD is facing the problem – also recognised at the federal election – that 77 percent of the respondents of an Infratest dimap survey believe that the SPD “does not exactly state what it intends to do to promote social justice”. More than half of voters (54 percent) are convinced that the SPD is “no longer an ordinary man party”.
The SPD has been able to gain votes across all professions and age groups, with the exception of young and first voters, where it lost 2 percent. The party performs below-average with the age group 18-44 years, achieves its average election result with the age group of the 45 to 59 year olds and gains 8 and 7 percentage points respectively with the age groups 60+ and 70+.
Bitter-sweet Second-best Election Result for the Greens
While the Greens (with 8.7 percent) achieved their second-best ever result in the history of state elections, they are still suffering a bitter loss. They lost around 5 percent and are therefore the main culprit for another failure of a Red-Green state government. The Greens’ Minister for Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, Christian Meyer, remains probably the party’s best-known face in Lower Saxony. With his expertise and willingness to lead controversial debates, he had represented the Green Agenda of the environmental modernisation of agriculture in Lower Saxony – a state with a strong history in farming.
Meyer had opposed the resistance of traditional agribusinesses and especially large animal farm operators – with success: 70 percent of Infratest dimap respondents stated: “I think it is great that they are taking charge of animal welfare.” This opinion is even more pronounced among Meyer’s own voters, 95 percent of whom said: “I think it is great that the Green Minister for Agriculture is taking charge of animal welfare”. A quarter (27 percent) of the surveyed eligible voters, however, indicated that they think the Greens have hurt the agricultural sector. Among voters of the Green Party, 85 percent take the view that the party is taking charge of agenda topics that are neglected by other parties. 76 percent of Green Party voters are convinced that the Greens in Lower Saxony represent a “modern version of economy and industry”, while more than a quarter (28 percent) criticised that the Greens don’t do enough to foster economy and employment and 23 percent are of the opinion that the Greens were “too anti-car”.
More than three quarters (78 percent) voted for the Greens as their preferred party. Almost every second Green Party voter voted for the Greens due to coalition-tactical reasons. The party has lost votes across all age groups and social classes, but remains popular with young and first voters (14 percent) and age group 25-59 years (11 percent) where it achieves above-average support. The party lost most voters among the unemployed (- 10 percent).
Historic Defeat of the CDU in Lower Saxony
With 33.6 percent, the CDU lost 2.4 percent compared to 2013 and delivered its worst performance since the state elections in 1959 where it achieved 30.8 percent. At the state elections in 2003, the Christian Democrats still achieved 48.3 percent of votes and 42.5 percent in 2008.
After 12 years of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship, the CDU and CSU are facing strategic problems, again confirmed by the state elections in Lower Saxony.
To every second voter (51 percent), Angela Merkel was the most important reason for voting CDU. 93 percent of CDU voters described her as a central anchoring point: “She makes sure that Germany does well even when the going gets tough.” Even two thirds (65 percent) of Infratest dimap respondents share this view of the CDU. At the same time, 53 percent of respondents think that “12 years of chancellor Merkel are enough” and 42 percent of CDU voters criticise that “over their refugee policy, the CDU under Merkel forgets about people’s concerns”.
In the traditionally rural and conservative Lower Saxony, more than half of voters believe that “the CDU is in need of a conservative reformation” – a view that is also shared by more than half (53 percent) of CDU voters – at 59 percent more voters articulated on election day that the CDU neglected the interests of workers.
When comparing the results of the state elections since 2003, the CDU has increasingly lost its authority in the area of the economy (2003: 58, 2008: 55, 2013: 51, 2017: 41), employment (53, 51, 43, 39), and education (48, 37, 33, 32). According to Infratest dimap data, in the competence fields “tackling crime and delinquency” (CDU: 44, SPD: 29) and “early detection and control of violence and terror” (CDU: 39, SPD: 23), the CDU is clearly ahead of the SPD, whose deputy Boris Pistorius, Lower Saxony’s Interior Minister, is also the party’s most well-known of all 16 German sub-national level Interior Ministers.
46 percent of CDU voters would welcome a “Jamaica” coalition, while 24 percent are opposed to such an alliance. However, only 10 percent of CDU voters support a Grand Coalition, with 52 percent being opposed to it – meaning that going ahead with a Grand Coalition would put a high strain on the CDU electorate.
The CDU has lost votes across all age groups and social classes, with the exception of self-employed voters, where it gains votes by 5 percent to 43 percent.
Surprisingly Weak – the Liberals
Following the Liberals’ outstanding result at the federal elections, the FDP expected to continue their success with an even higher result at the state elections in Lower Saxony, following the pattern of the previous three state elections. But the party lost 2.5 percent compared to 2013. 30 percent of voters voted for it as a result of coalition-tactical motivations, while 65 percent indicated that the FDP was their preferred party. A good quarter (27 percent) of FDP voters indicated that they would not have voted for it without their leader Christian Lindner.
It appears that the population in the second-largest (in terms of area space) German state appreciates the fact that the FDP is committed to digital modernisation. Among all Infratest dimap respondents, 86 percent welcome that the party “wants to promote digital developments” – a view that is shared by 96 percent of FDP voters. 87 percent of FDP voters are convinced that the FDP has “clearer concepts for topics for the future than other parties” – these figures indicate that the party’s image change has been successful. In Lower Saxony, the party’s ascribed competencies in the areas of digitalisation (23 percent) are even ahead of their traditional competence areas economy (11 percent) and education (9 percent).
The party has gained votes among the 18 to 24-year olds (+4 percent), while it lost ground with the age groups 60+ and 70+ (-7 percent and -6 percent respectively) – this is the dark side of a party traditionally perceived as a senior citizen’s party that consistently focuses on digitalisation.
In spite of all crises and scandals – the AfD the 15th state parliament
In spite of a number of scandals and controversies, the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, or AfD) achieved 6.2 percent of the votes and entered the 15th of 16 state parliaments with 9 deputies. Despite the many scandals and disputes within the party, 59 percent of AfD voters declared to have voted for them out of “disappointment with other parties”. At the same time, 53 percent of AfD voters take the view that the party “has not distanced itself enough from far-right positions”. This shows that there is either a limited understanding of the party’s inner workings or that the willingness to send a signal against the “established” parties prevails over the awareness of the party’s far-right character. This corresponds to 97 percent of AfD voters stating that the AfD “is the only party allowing me to protest against politics”. 89 percent of Infratest dimap respondents in turn believe that the party does not distance itself enough from far-right positions. The same number also takes the view that the party is “too divided for serious policy-making”.
63 percent of AfD voters see the party as especially competent in fighting against crime, 58 percent believe they are competent when it comes to fighting against terrorism. 33 percent see the AfD as competent in the field of social justice.
100 percent (!) of the surveyed AfD voters indicated that the party “has understood better than other parties that many don’t feel safe anymore”. They welcome that the AfD wants to “further limit the influx of foreigners and refugees”. 97 percent of AfD voters appreciate that the party intends to “limit the influence of Islam in Germany”. Almost half of all eligible voters (47 percent) are of the opinion that the AfD “has understood better than other parties that many don’t feel safe anymore” and approximately one third (33 percent) welcomes the AfD’s efforts to limit the influence of Islam.
Another Close Failure – DIE LINKE
After the state elections in North Rhine Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein, left-wing party DIE LINKE missed out again on entering a state parliament in Western Germany. While it gained 1.5 percentage points compared to the state elections 2013 and achieved a better result (4.6 percent) than in neighbouring Schleswig-Holstein, it failed to continue its election success from 2008, where it entered the state parliament with 7.1 percent of votes.
More than a third of the electorate surveyed by Infratest dimap (39 percent) would like to see DIE LINKE in the state parliament. Another third (35 percent) saw the party as a “good alternative for those who don’t feel at home with the SPD anymore“, while 94 percent of LINKE voters share this view.
The dependency of the LINKE on the SPD could be problematic if the SPD gains votes and DIE LINKE fails to produce arguments why anyone should still vote for them. Their message to be available for a Red-Red-Green state government is a possible answer to this question – as a leftist corrective within this tripartite alliance. This correlates positively to the fact that more than half of all voters (53 percent) were of the opinion that the party “is most strongly committed to the socially deprived” – a view that is shared by 93 percent of LINKE voters.
Negatively correlated might be the fact that two thirds of all voters think that the left-wing party’s concepts are unrealistic and could not be financed. However, three quarters of all voters (76 percent) are of the opinion that while DIE LINKE did not solve problems, it called a spade a spade – interestingly, only two thirds (67 percent) of LINKE voters agreed with this. This has not always been true with this classic Infratest dimap survey.
Concerns about Social Cohesion – Lessons for the Centre-Left
The data from this state election show again that a positive look on one’s personal economic situation does not necessarily lead to a statement about the precarious hairline cracks in social cohesion.
In Lower Saxony almost two thirds (63 percent) of AfD voters and 92 percent of FDP voters view their economic situation positively and consider it as ‘good’. This is the case for 71 percent of LINKE voters. At the same time, 63 and 65 percent of AfD voters and LINKE voters respectively state that there is quite a bit of injustice in Germany.
Three quarters of all voters are worried that “our society is increasingly drifting apart” and roughly a quarter (24 percent) are concerned that they won’t be able to maintain their standard of living. Given that more than three quarters of SPD voters criticise that the party “does not exactly state what it intends to do to promote social justice”, there is more than enough to do for the Social Democrats.
In a republic that has moved towards the right and a political discourse that has been playing to the AfD for months, the question arises whether the population’s concerns about social cohesion are made the topic of discussion as part of an authoritarian security discourse with xenophobic tendencies or if something else is afoot.
For AfD voters, the answer is evident: 95 percent are concerned that criminality is on the rise, for 80 percent the questions of “how to regulate immigration” and “how the police ensures our security” were important. For only 56 percent of AfD voters the question “how to reduce social injustice” was important for their vote. If any group of AfD voters can in fact be integrated, it is those who attach importance to this question that need focussing on. It is necessary that this fact is understood by those in the Left Party who still erroneously assume that they can go onto the offensive against the AfD in this area. As pointed out elsewhere: The examples of Austria, France or Scandinavia show that right-wing populists have been able to shift the discourse to the right because other parties believed to be able to occupy the space right of the centre. The race between the hare and the tortoise cannot be won – in fact, it shouldn’t even be run. This might be the most important task the left wing – of whatever political hue – will have to tackle moving forward.