Regional Polls show German Elections not over

Monday, 31. August 2009     0 comment(s)
Timo Behr
Researcher - The European Union research programme

Regional Polls show German Elections not over

With less than four weeks to go to the general elections, German voters went to the polls this Sunday to vote for new regional governments in Saxony, Thuringia and the Saarland. The results suggest that the outcome of this month's elections are far from predetermined. They also demonstrate the increasing fragmentation of Germany’s five-party system.

The biggest loser of this weekend’s polls was Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU. While remaining the largest party in all three Länder (regional states), the CDU lost double digit figures in Thuringia and the Saarland. In neither of the two does it now have enough seats to form a governing coalition with the Liberal FDP, its preferred coalition partner. Although the SPD did not perform much better – beating the Liberals only by a wafer thin margin for third place in Saxony and losing many votes to the Linke in the Saarland – it celebrates the elections as a victory and is hoping for a late boost to its popularity. For the SPD, the polls demonstrate that a coalition between the CDU and the Liberals on Election Day can still be prevented. They might have a point.

The biggest winners of the regional elections, however, have been Germany’s smaller (or more correctly now midsized) parties. The Linke (the successor of the East German PDS), above all, has reasons to celebrate. Pulling second in Thuringia and Saxony and closing in on the SPD in the Saarland, the Linke has shown its electoral potential. Indeed, there is a good chance that coalition talks might lead to the participation of the Linke (together with SPD and Greens) in a new government in the Saarland. This would be the first of its kind in Western Germany and might send a strong signal for the future of a left-left coalition. The FDP also gained votes in all three Länder, but in all likelihood will only participate in a new government in Saxony – due to the dismal performance of the CDU. The Greens, finally, scored some small gains across the board.

Although one has to be cautious about reading too much into the implications of these regional polls for the upcoming general elections – regional particularities tend to matter – there are three general lessons that seem to suggest themselves:

First, an electoral majority of the CDU and the FDP on a federal level seems far from assured. Previous opinion polls placed them at 50 percent. Given the usual margin for error, this is unlikely to prove enough. Moreover, most pundits believe that the CDU has mobilized its electoral potential, while the SPD has still some way to go. Sunday’s elections might be just the kind of signal the SPD has been waiting for.

Second, the elections have shown that the Linke has become a firmly established part of the German electoral system. Their likely participation in a new government in the Saarland might have a long-term impact on the SPD’s disposition towards them. While the SPD still opposes any alliances with the Linke on a federal level for the upcoming elections, it seems less likely to do so in the long-run.

Finally, the elections have underlined the increasingly strategic role of the Greens as the kingmakers for governing coalitions. Wooed by both SPD and CDU to be part of a three-party coalition, they will determine the outcome in the Saarland. Should CDU and FDP fail to gain a majority in the federal elections, it will be up to the Greens to determine whether Germany will have to muddle through another four years of grand-coalition.

Overall, the picture is one of fragmentation. The rise of the Linke in the 2004 federal elections has turned Germany’s political system into a five-party system with a host of new possible electoral combinations. This weekend’s polls indicate that despite the Liberals strong showing, the choice for the upcoming federal elections might be between another grand coalition of SPD and CDU and a yet untried three-party coalition. Either way, the race is far from over yet.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

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