Germany held its last regional election of the year, in the eastern state of Thuringia, this past Sunday. The results followed a now-familiar pattern.
The two parties that form the national government — Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) — saw their combined vote share squeezed to 30 percent, a historic low for the two so-called “people’s parties.” The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) polled robustly, coming in at 23.4 percent. Throw in the 31 percent won by the Socialist Left Party (LP) and the results give mainstream politicians plenty to think about.
Is this result further evidence that the tectonic plates of German party politics are shifting in potentially dangerous ways? After all, over half of those who went to the polls voted for parties at the edges of the political spectrum, the AfD and the LP. Is that a sign that German stability really can’t be taken for granted any more?
Here are three good reasons to be just a little suspicious of such dramatic conclusions.
1. Regional isn’t national
Over the years, plenty of research has found that the results of regional elections — both in Germany and beyond — are not easily read across to national-level politics. As Charlie Jeffery and I have argued, three particular phenomena are often evident in regional elections when compared with those at the national level.
Turnout levels are generally lower. Only very rarely will more citizens vote in regional elections than they do in national ones. The turnout in Thuringia was up 12.2 percent over the 2014 regional election, but still 9.2 percent behind that in the federal election of 2017.
Furthermore, parties that govern the country often underperform in regional elections. That is, often voters are keener to punish the government’s mistakes they than they are to reward its successes. That may well have held true in Thuringia; 70 percent voted against the parties in power in Berlin, the worst performance by governing parties ever in a regional election.
We also regularly see smaller parties do well in these ostensibly second order polls, meaning local and regional elections where national power isn’t up for grabs. These parties may focus on a single issue, or may hover on the far-left or far-right, as happened in Thuringia on Sunday.
People are much more likely to cast protest votes in elections where they know that the real tools of power aren’t at stake. At least some of these voters may quite plausibly return to more mainstream parties when Bundestag seats are next decided in 2021.
2. Fringe parties aren’t replacing the old mainstream
The successes of the LP and AfD do look like warning shots across the bow of the German mainstream. But even this is more complex than it may seem at first glance.
The rise of the both the LP and the AfD suggest serious dissatisfaction with Germany’s post-unification political order. Yet the LP in Thuringia is not an extremist party. Bodo Ramelow, the LP’s star in the state, has just finished five years as the head of Thuringia’s government. He remains widely respected. His administration was competent and clearheaded.
Ramelow’s LP, much like the Green administration in the southern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, is as much a response to the failings of the CDU and the SPD as it is a genuine embrace of a new agenda. Neither the Greens nor the LP are programmatic revolutionaries. They have prioritized down-to-earth governing and competence over grandstanding. They have leaders who are well-respected and levelheaded. That counts for quite a bit in an era of populism and fake news.
The AfD is different. Since 2015 the AfD has polled strongly across the six states of eastern Germany. It mobilizes the disgruntled and dissatisfied. It talks to those who feel that others are getting a better deal and they’re being left out. Its supporters are skeptical of Western elites, think Germany is being economically taken advantage of by others and believe that Angela Merkel has run the country down. In such a situation a far-right party can easily gain traction.
3. The mainstream parties haven't found their narratives for today’s realities
What does this mean for Germany moving forward? This is the third, and arguably most crucial, point revealed by the Thuringian election: Neither of the main parties has developed a narrative that talks to a broad consensus of Germans.
Angela Merkel is soon to leave the stage and the CDU is struggling to find a strong replacement for her. The party is also having difficulty explaining what it really stands. That’s partly because its much-unloved coalition with the SPD has lurched from one internal crisis to the next, leaving the impression that no matter what the policy challenge, the government will have an underwhelming response.
The SPD, meanwhile, is leaderless and for the most part devoid of ideas. Plagued by self-doubt and perennially pondering whether it should leave the national government altogether, it looks like a party obsessed with itself. Throw in a Green Party that has effectively presented itself as fresh-faced and the Social Democrats face a challenging set of problems.
German party politics are certainly changing. More parties are trusted with power at the regional level and the CDU and SPD face a mosaic of challenges. The main parties are not spent forces. But if they want to continue to dominate German politics, they have to do a much better job crafting narratives that Germans can warm to. As things stand, they are a fair distance from doing that.
Dan Hough (@thedanhough) is a professor of politics at the University of Sussex in Britain.