Normally, the only people who describe the results of sub-national, or Land, elections in Germany as ‘sensational’ are the winners of such polls. However, in the case of the elections held on 27 March 2011 in the states of Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg , the use of this adjective, for once, seems justified. For the results, which saw the Greens increase their share of the vote strongly in both states to score 15.4 and 24.2 per cent respectively, have turned the conventional wisdom of politics in Germany on its head. In particular, due to the Greens beating the SPD into third place in Baden-Württemberg, Germany looks set, in Winfried Kretschmann, to have its first Green Minister-President ever – and the first Minister-President who is not from the CDU/CSU or SPD since the late 1950s.
The immediate reason behind this shift are clear: in a country where the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster left deep scars, the ongoing problems at the Fukushima nuclear reactor in Japan were always going play into the hands of the Greens and their traditionally anti-nuclear power platform. Turnout was up in both states, with voters pinpointing energy policy as a key factor in their decision. In that context, Chancellor Merkel’s recent volte-face on her government’s original plans to extend the lifespan of Germany’s own nuclear power stations looked to be a fairly cynical electioneering ploy, which arguably ended up benefiting the Greens rather than the CDU.
But local factors were at play, too. In recent months, politics in Baden-Württemberg had been defined by growing public opposition to the CDU-FDP Land government’s plans completely to demolish and relocate the central station in Stuttgart (the so-called ‘Stuttgart 21’ project); and the Greens had been successful in putting themselves at the political head of this opposition movement. What is more, with its large and prosperous University towns such as Freiburg and Heidelberg, the Greens have always been strong in Baden-Württemberg, and rather more bourgeois their more radical counterparts in Hesse or Berlin (on this, see the insightful, albeit rather patronising, portrait of the Green milieu in Tübingen which appeared on p. 58 of a recent issue of Der Spiegel). That in turn made it easier for disaffected CDU and FDP voters to pick them as an alternative.
What conclusions can we draw about the parties’ respective performances?
First, the Christian Democrats (CDU) performed very poorly in states which have traditionally been strongholds of Catholic conservatism. In Rhineland-Palatinate, the CDU had consistently headed the state’s government for 44 years between 1947 and 1991, before losing power to an SPD-led coalition. But in Baden-Württemberg, the CDU had been in power, albeit sometimes in coalition with either the FDP or social-democratic SPD, without interruption since 1953 – a massive 58 years. The fact that the CDU failed to usurp the former state’s rather tired SPD government with its by now veteran SPD Minister-President Kurt Beck is bad enough; but to lose office in Baden-Württemberg is a bitter blow indeed.
Even so, Chancellor Merkel’s position continues to look somewhere between safe and unassailable, largely because of the complete lack of any credible alternative. Since she became CDU party leader in 2000, and leaving aside the self-influcted fate of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, all her potential rivals have either retired, given up or been outmanoeuvred by her. That said, her authority has taken an undoubted hit and may not recover for a while; fortunately for her, there are no more Land elections scheduled between September 2011 and spring 2013 – a period of almost eighteen months.
Second, the FDP fared little better, falling at the 5 per cent hurdle necessary to achieve representation altogether in Rhineland-Palatinate, and only squeaking home with 5.3 per cent in Baden-Württemberg. This comes on top of the result in Saxony-Anhalt last week, where the FDP also failed to take the 5 per cent hurdle. Such a run of poor results will inevitably reopen questions about Guido Westerwelle’s future as FDP party leader, and with three more state elections to go this year, his survival in office cannot be taken for granted. A particular danger point for Mr Westerwelle will be at the upcoming FDP party congress in Rostock from 13-15 May, at which he himself is up for reelection as party leader, although the rumblings of discontent within his party may of course signal a much sooner departure for him. Like with the CDU, though, the absence of any realistic replacement in terms of a seasoned national-level political figure may yet enable him to stay on.
Meanwhile, the results confirm that the SPD remains stuck in the doldrums, notwithstanding a strong performance recently in Hamburg. Despite the incumbency bonus in Rhineland-Palatinate, it lost almost ten percentage points and only just remained the largest party. In particular, its complete failure to capitalise on the CDU’s weakness in Baden-Württemberg will set alarm bells ringing at party HQ, as will the fact that it has been beaten into third place by the Greens for the first time in a sub-national election. With 30 months to go before the next federal election in September 2013, it has much ground to cover before looking like a plausible alternative to a CDU/CSU-FDP government that has, so far, struggled to get out of the starting blocks.
But the Greens are the party of the moment. By beating the SPD into third place for the first time, they have underlined their potential not just to take away votes from the SPD at the margins, but to challenge the social-democrats for supremacy on the centre-left. Of course, it benefited hugely from external events and once the party’s hangover (induced, no doubt, by the finest Spätburgunder the vineyards around the Kaiserstuhl have to offer) has worn off, it faces a huge challenge in Baden-Württemberg: it not only is entering office in that state for the first time ever, but it will also be the senior partner – with all the responsibilities that that entails. Given that, watch carefully what the new Green-SPD government (and will we be getting used to that order of parties in the future?) sets out in its coalition agreement. For while Stuttgart 21 constitutes an easy target, of greater significance will be the future of EnBW, the local energy generating company and the third largest in Germany after E.ON and RWE. For in late 2010, the CDU-FDP state government under the outgoing Minister-President Stefan Mappus effectively nationalised EnBW, which is now under shared ownership of the Land and a consortium of local authorities. With a party committed to expanding renewable energy sources now in overall political charge, this represents a huge opportunity to make a practical difference to energy provision in one of Europe’s industrial powerhouses.
Lastly, what does this all mean for the federal government’s prospects? Well, in light of her failure to regain the political initiative on nuclear power in the run-up to the election, expect Chancellor Merkel to become even more risk-averse than she has been so far. For the moment, with the German economy in full song, that is not such a problem, but once new problems arise, as they always do, the risk is that the government’s response may be slow, erratic or both. As my colleague William Paterson is pointing out, this is likely to be even more salient at EU level, where the recent Eurocrisis has shone a stark light on some of the tensions now inherent in Germany’s European policy. The politics of Europe’s largest member-state are therefore interesting once more.