Tuesday, 16 May 2017

On recent German Landtag elections: Schulz takes a shunting

Recently, two Landtag elections were held in Germany, those of Schleswig-Holstein and Nordrhein-Westfalen (North Rhine-Westphalia), two key battleground states in Germany, which has its Bundestag election in September this year.

Both results dealt a critical blow to SPD (Social Democratic Party) lead candidate for the Bundestag, Martin Schulz, the former leader of the S&D group in the European Parliament, who was closing the gap on CDU (Christian Democratic Union) Chancellor Angela Merkel after he was selected by the SPD. In Schleswig-Holstein, the SPD only lost one of their seats and their coalition partners the Greens did not lose any, but this was enough for the CDU to take the lead, meaning that Daniel Gunther will likely replace Torsten Albig as Minister-President of Schleswig Holstein, particularly since the Free Democrats (FDP) gained three extra seats compared to 2012. CDU-FDP coalitions have occurred many times at Landtag and Federal level in Germany, the most famous examples being from 1982-98 when the FDP allowed Helmut Kohl of the CDU to retain the Chancellorship for 16 years, and when they supported Angela Merkel during her second term as Chancellor, only to pay a heavy price when they lost every single Landtag seat in 2013. Although the CDU and FDP only have 34 seats between them (37 are needed for a majority in the Schleswig-Holstein Landtag), this could be enough for them to govern in practice. Alternative fur Deutschland made another Landtag entrance, but they only managed 5.9% and 5 seats, which is typical of the fact that the sheen is fast coming off AfD especially westwards of Berlin, and following key defeats hard-right nationalist populism is going out of vogue in continental Europe. AfD is however still taking considerable numbers of votes from CDU, SPD, and Linke voters in particular, which can partly explain why Die Linke (The Left) failed to re-enter the Schleswig-Holstein Landtag, with their vote share only increasing to 3.8%. The South Schleswig Voters' association retained its 4 seats; as it is representing the Danish minority it is exempt from the usual Funf-Prozent Threshold for elections to either the Landtag or Bundestag; it nevertheless lost a quarter of its 2012 votes due to its participation in Herr Albig's coalition, which was frowned upon by voters to say the least. The Pirates, as expected, were thoroughly rejected from yet another Landtag, dropping to a mere 1.2% of the vote.

The North Rhine-Westphalia Landtag election, in one of the key battleground areas in any Bundestag election (cf. West Midlands in the United Kingdom), was even more startling in this respect, as once popular Minister-President Hannelore Kraft saw her SPD-Green coalition crashing to a heavy defeat. The SPD lost 30 of their 99 seats, and crucially lost pole position to the CDU, led in this state by Armin Luschet. The second Kraft administration has not fared well here, particularly in the wake of the refugee crisis and major deficit trimming (rather hypocritical since Frau Kraft has been critical of Frau Merkel's austerity policies in the past), and the Greens' popularity on a federal level, as well as a state level, has declined somewhat since 2013. This, combined with a dislike of Sylvia Lohrmann's policies as Education Minister, culminated in them losing over half their seats in the North Rhine-Westphalia Landtag, compounded by the fact that the number of seats in the Landtag itself was reduced from 237 to 199 (this is 18 more than in 2010, however; this state, the largest in Germany by area, experiences notable population flux). The FDP, meanwhile, experienced another revival by increasing their seat total by 6 to 28 and taking third place in the Landtag; the timing was better for them since in 2012 their support had not declined as sharply as in 2013, meaning they were able to work from a more substantial base in North Rhine-Westphalia, which has some notable areas of core FDP support, like former West German capital Bonn. This is in fact the best ever FDP result achieved in the modern history of North Rhine-Westphalia. Given that there are many key industrial heartlands in this state, you would expect the AfD to do well, but they only achieved 7.4% and 16 seats, only 2 more than the Greens and well behind the FDP. Their support in working-class areas probably contributed to Die Linke failing to re-enter the Landtag; they achieved 4.9%, another Landtag near-miss in recent history. The Pirates were ousted from this Landtag just 7 days after they lost all their seats in Schleswig-Holstein, meaning they no longer have any Landtag seats whatsoever-they have been well and truly firewalled out of political significance. It is likely that Herr Luschet will take over in this Landtag without delay, as the new combined total of the CDU and FDP (100 seats) is just enough to get a majority.

These two Landtag elections will provide a strong morale boost for Angela Merkel with the Bundestag election just over four months from now, even if the FDP's likely re-entry into the Bundestag will cost the CDU/CSU some seats. At Wahlkreis level, ).many key marginal single member constituencies are located in North Rhine-Westphalia, and the CDU already struck a significant blow to the SPD in that respect in 2013. Many key inner-city Wahlkreis held by the SPD are now more vulnerable than ever, which is reminiscent of the situation that will transpire in the UK next month (exacerbated by the UK's total lack of proportional representation at a parliamentary level).

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