Lessons from the Berlin state election – for politics in Germany and beyond

Last Sunday, just two weeks after a punishing defeat in the state election in Mecklenburg West Pomerania, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) faced another unwelcome electoral challenge in the country’s capital, Berlin.  In the end, the results proved a disappointment not only for the CDU (which secured just 17.6%, -5.7% compared to the last election in 2011), but also for the social democratic SPD, which headed the state’s government (a CDU / SPD coalition), and fell to 21.6% (-6.7%), a remarkably low total for a party topping the poll.  For both the parties, these were record low results in the post-war period.  Back in 1990, the CDU and SPD (known as the Volksparteien, in recognition of their support coming from a cross-section of society) together secured over 70% of the vote.  Now, they are reduced to barely half that amount.  Green Party support held pretty stable (15.2%, -2.4%), the Left Party (15.6%, +3.9%) recovered some ground in a state in which it was historically strong, the liberal FDP regained entry to the state parliament (6.7%, +4.9%), and the Pirates showed that their success in the 2011 election was a flash in the pan (1.7%, -7.2%).  Most strikingly, the populist right Alternative for Germany (AfD) showed that it could make a breakthrough (14.2%) even in a state which was previously expected to be socially too liberal, too tolerant, to witness such a result.

While it is always unwise to read too much into the results of an individual state poll, there are a few claims which can be advanced on the basis of these results (and the usual excellent polling by Infratest dimap alongside them).

  1. While bad for the CDU, it is far too early to write off Angela Merkel. The CDU in Berlin was unpopular, and was felt to have performed poorly in government, with an inept leader, Frank Henkel. Voters preferred the SPD’s mayor, Michael Müller, by a 53% to 23% margin, and indeed even on the issue of refugees, whilst this was a major factor for AfD voters, 57% felt Angela Merkel was right to stick to her approach on the issue (compared to 39% who wanted her to move towards the hardline positions of the Bavarian CSU). For all the criticism of her, there is no obvious successor, let along internal challenger, to Merkel.

2.The CDU increasingly struggles in urban areas. If you roll the clock back 20 years, the CDU held the mayoralty not only of Berlin, but of Frankfurt (now SPD) and Stuttgart (now Green), and was competitive in elections in other major cities, such as Hamburg (where its vote has since collapsed). Now, the party is not in power in any of the country’s major cities, and seems to have little appeal amongst liberally-minded, urban voters. Much has been written of the difficulty faced by centre-left parties in integrating traditionally-minded working-class voters with those of the “new left”, but Christian Democracy faces analogous problems, at least in Germany.

3.The AfD may benefit largely from protest votes, but they look set to enter the federal parliament next year. Although 69% of AfD voters in Berlin said they decided on the basis of disappointment with other parties, compared to 29% who were convinced by the AfD itself, it remains the case that it has successfully overcome the 5% hurdle for representation in every state election since the 2013 federal election. Its election to the Bundestag looks to be only a matter of time.

4. State elections are more than just a judgement on the performance of the national government. There is a lively debate in political science about whether regional or national factors are decisive in regional elections. But in Berlin, there is no question that major dissatisfaction with the performance of the SPD/CDU coalition there (just 36% were satisfied) contributed to those parties’ historically bad performance.

5. The SPD’s involvement of members in deciding policy didn’t seem to give it great traction. Politicians elsewhere might be interested in the decision to allow all party members in the city to vote on such questions as the legalisation of cannabis (narrowly rejected), whether to focus on the number or quality of new flats (members favoured numbers), more police on the streets (supported), and continuing to ban headscarves amongst state employees like teachers (strongly supported).   These answers would then flow into the manifesto. But this enterprise did not really capture the public imagination. What recent successes the SPD has had have tended to be down to having a very popular state premier at its head (such as Malu Dreyer in Rhineland-Palatinate and Erwin Sellering in Mecklenburg West Pomerania).

6. 27 years on from the fall of the Berlin wall, eastern and western voting behaviour is distinct, in Berlin and elsewhere. Most obviously, the Left Party did better in the eastern part of the city (23.4%) than the west (10.1%), as did the AfD (17.0% east, 12.1% west – with the party coming first in some of the outlying, high-rise estates in the east), while the CDU, Greens and FDP did significantly better in the west. Such differences can also be clearly observed when comparing state polls in western and eastern Germany.

7. And last but not least, grand coalitions lead to a rise in support for smaller parties. When the major parties of centre-left (SPD) and centre-right (CDU) are in government, whether at a state or a national level, the combined total of their support is almost guaranteed to fall, with the smaller coalition partner especially vulnerable. When it comes to Germany’s federal election next year, it appears likely that minor parties – of left and right – will profit at the expense of CDU and SPD. In Berlin, this has now meant that no two parties have a majority, though, in contrast to the national level, the Left Party (along with the Greens) is likely to be invited to join a coalition with the SPD, thus bringing the period of grand coalition to an end.

Ed Turner is Senior Lecturer and Head of Politics and International Relations at Aston University, based in the Aston Centre for Europe. He has written widely on German party politics and federalism. This blog was initially published, in slightly edited form, at Left Food Forward.

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