Hamburg is Germany’s most English city. The wind blows from the North Sea, its buildings look like London townhouses and moments of extreme joy and despair are usually handled with a stiff upper lip. Sunday’s celebrations among the city’s social democrats, however, were atypical of its famously reserved citizens. Winning 48% of the vote in a key regional election, the SPD reached an absolute majority, something it hadn’t managed in nearly a quarter of a century. In the Berlin headquarters of Angela Merkel’s CDU the news was received with pale faces. A loss in Hamburg had appeared inevitable for some time, but the crushing nature of the defeat was a blow nonetheless.
The conclusion is inevitable: Angela Merkel‘s best days are behind her. The most powerful woman in Europe finds herself facing the beginning of the end. Looking back, she will be forced to recognise the defeat in Hamburg as the turning point in her political career. Six more local elections are still to come this year: if Hamburg has set the tone, it looks like Germany’s Social Democrats have recovered from the painful defeat at the last Bundestag elections in 2009. The red-green project that had such an appeal to Germany’s liberal majority in the 90s is set for a comeback.
Merkel’s plan had been to manoeuvre the CDU so far into the centre that it would be able to enter a coalition with nearly any other party – a major bonus in a country where coalition governments are the norm at regional level. For a while it looked like that plan was going to work. Under Germany’s first female chancellor, the Conservatives entered a variety of ever-changing coalitions – with the Social Democrats, with the Liberal Democrats and even, in Hamburg, with the Green party – but the super-flexible Merkel always had one hand on the steering wheel. For a few years it looked like a CDU government was going to be the standard mode of operation for Germany.
It now turns out that her plan had a flaw. In Hamburg, the Green party turned its back on the Conservatives and allowed the first coalition of its kind to collapse. The differences between the patriarchal, bourgeois culture of CDU voters and the happy-clappy clientele of the Greens turned out to be too great after all. The only person who had been able to bridge the gap and appeal to both kind of voters had been Hamburg’s former mayor Ole von Beust. Openly gay von Beust was crucial in building and stabilising the first ever “black-green” coalition. After he threw in the towel in July 2010 it was only a matter of time until the two parties returned to their diametrically opposed positions. The CDU was practically annihilated at the Hamburg elections: with 22% it barely managed to get half the votes it had won in the 2008 election, while the Greens saw some minor gains.
After the failure of a Conservative-Green coalition in Hamburg, CDU politicians elsewhere in the country will think twice before they enter an agreement with the Green party. If there is a lesson to be drawn from Sunday’s election, it’s that the big party suffers from this kind of arrangement, while the smaller party profits. In the future search for coalition partners, Merkel will be heavily reliant on the hapless foreign minister and Liberal Democrat leader Guido Westerwelle, while the revitalised Social Democrats and the ever-rising Greens can start dreaming again of the halcyon days under Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer.
The next elections will be in Baden Württemberg in the south, and that’s when things are going to get seriously interesting. Experts consider the Baden Württemberg elections far more important than the ones in Hamburg: not only does the province have more representatives in the Bundestag, it’s also largely rural, and thus more indicative of voting patterns throughout the rest of the country. If things stay as they are, we will end up with another first: a “green-red” coalition, in other words a Green MP at the top, with Social Democrat support.
Whether any of this would involve a major change in policy is a different question. Hamburg’s new mayor Olaf Scholz won the vote with a manifesto that was almost a carbon copy of von Beust’s winning formula in 2008. Calling either of them “brave” would be a stretch. Something similar had happened at the last national elections, when the Social Democrats and Conservatives seemingly competed to see who could come up with the least distinctive political profile. The motto that seems to increasingly determine the behaviour of German politicians and voters is that real politics can only help you lose elections, never win them.
By Jakob Augstein, the publisher of the German weekly newspaper Der Freitag and a columnist for Spiegel Onli.