Four things to watch in Germany’s state elections on Sunday

A voter casts a ballot in postal voting center in Mainz, Germany, on March 10. Voters go to the polls on March 14 for state elections in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Wuerttemberg. (Alex Kraus/Bloomberg)
A voter casts a ballot in postal voting center in Mainz, Germany, on March 10. Voters go to the polls on March 14 for state elections in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Wuerttemberg. (Alex Kraus/Bloomberg)

In September, Germany will hold a general election, which will decide the composition of Germany’s parliament, and, ultimately, its government. But on Sunday, two German states — Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate — will elect their own state legislatures, each of which will then elect state-level governments in turn. These elections may provide some sense of the bigger national trends. Here’s what to look out for.

Coronavirus may not shake up politics as much as you’d think

Sunday’s elections coincide with the first anniversary of Germany’s first covid-19 lockdown. And things haven’t gone too well over the last year — the economy is struggling, the vaccine rollout has been slow, and some federal legislators in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right CDU/CSU camp are facing corruption charges over mask procurement. The radical right AfD party is supporting street protests in several cities against pandemic policies.

However, all of these factors may not produce the political upheavals you would expect — at most, they may shake up coalitions among mainstream parties. Germany’s voting system involves proportional representation, which usually leads to coalitions at the state and the national level. These coalitions have become more complicated as the formerly dominant CDU and center-left SPD parties have lost ground, and the radical right has risen in importance.

State-level coalitions allow parties to experiment with new partners. In Rhineland-Palatine, the SPD governs together with the Greens and the liberal FDP. In Baden-Württemberg, the Greens have been the senior partner in government, with the center-right CDU as junior partner. The dominant parties in each of these states are likely to do well on Sunday.

The Greens continue to rise

It’s likely that Greens will remain a key political player in both states, either as junior or as senior partner in the ruling coalition. The wealthy region of Baden-Württemberg may seem like an unlikely base for the Green party — it’s the heartland of Germany’s automobile and machine building industry. However, a moderate Green politician, Winfried Kretschmann, has been state premier since 2011. Back then, the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan gave such a strong boost to the Greens, known for their opposition to nuclear energy, that they caused a political upheaval. Now the dominant party in the state, the Greens may even win decisively enough that they can choose among several potential minor coalition partners.

Growing support for the Greens reflects a broader national trend. The Fridays for Future environmental protests shaped German public debate, and polls suggest that they have chances of becoming Germany’s second most popular party, after Merkel’s CDU. That may lead to a bigger shake-up. Since 2013, Germany has been governed by a centrist “grand coalition” of the center-right CDU/CSU and the center-left SPD. Now, prominent politicians from both the CDU/CSU and the Greens would like to go into government together for the first time at the national level.

The pandemic hasn’t boosted the radical right

The radical right AfD has been the most vocal opponent of Germany’s pandemic restrictions, playing down the dangers of the covid-19 virus, supporting street protests that have attracted extremists, and calling for an end to lockdowns. The party claims that it’s defending basic constitutional rights such as the freedom of assembly.

However, AfD’s unique selling point as the “Corona skeptic” party has not won it widespread support. The party’s standing has faded somewhat as national political debates focused less on immigration issues, and instead prioritized pandemic-related measures. Analysts expect AfD to lose some voters in both Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, ending up with around 10 percent of the vote.

And AfD now faces a fundamental national challenge after Germany’s domestic secret service, which has been accused in the past of going easy on the radical right, is now targeting it. The office’s classification of the party as a “suspected case” of extremism, ultimately allowing for measures such as surveillance, was only made public a week ago — suspiciously close before the upcoming state elections. For the moment, the AfD has gotten a temporary court order against the secret service’s assessment, but the negative publicity probably won’t help at the polls.

The race to succeed Merkel is about to get serious

Chancellor Angela Merkel is stepping down later this year, no matter what. If current polling is any guide, her CDU party (together with its Bavarian sister-party, the CSU) will be the biggest party in Germany’s parliament after the September election. That means that the CDU/CSU’s candidate is likely to be Merkel’s successor. But who will that be?

In January, Armin Laschet, the premier of North-Rhine Westphalia (the most populous German state) was elected the new leader of the CDU party. He wanted the office because the CDU leader is usually the center right’s candidate for chancellor. However, Markus Söder, the premier of Bavaria and head of CSU, is also interested in the job. Laschet may be damaged by Sunday’s election, since the CDU is expected not to win in Baden-Württemberg and may also fall short in Rhineland-Palatinate. However, the actual political differences between the two are limited: Laschet and Söder present themselves as “centrists,” and both are willing to work with the Greens.

Despite the turmoil of the pandemic, it’s unlikely that Sunday’s two state elections will reveal any radical disruptions. Instead, German politics are more likely to see continued stability — but perhaps some reshuffled coalitions — in the lead up to September’s national elections.

Manès Weisskircher (@ManesWeissk) is a researcher at TU Dresden (MIDEM — Mercator Forum for Migration and Democracy).

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