Anything goes in Germany’s new political arena

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Ulrike Guérot
Ulrike Guérot

Founder & Director of the European Democracy Lab and Author of “Why Europe must become a republic”

Dispute and controversy have returned to German politics. It was clear – or at least widely feared – that the refugee crisis would highly impact the regional elections held on 13th March in three Bundesländer: Sachsen-Anhalt, Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz. But few would have expected the outcome to be so bad, or so confusing to say the least.

The one positive thing about the elections is probably their level of voter participation, which rose to an astonishing average of 70% – a very unusual statistic for regional elections. The single most important topic of the post-election coverage, though, was whether these three regional elections were a protest against or a show of support for Merkel’s stance in the European refugee crisis, considering the surprisingly strong performance of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The three-year-old right-wing populist party achieved 24% in Sachsen-Anhalt, 15% in Baden-Württemberg and 12.5% in Rheinland-Pfalz.

Although the established parties tried to play down the results, something quite fundamental seems to have changed

Although the refugees were the most important election issue, it didn’t impact the outcome of the three elections in the same way. Whereas the significant rise of the AfD in Sachsen-Anhalt can most visibly be interpreted as a protest, the strong 36% result in Rheinland-Pfalz for Social Democratic Party (SDP) candidate Malu Dreyer, who had vocalised support for Merkel’s position on refugees, can be read as good support. Julia Klöckner, Dreyer’s challenger from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) had tried to differentiate her answer to the refugee question from Merkel’s, and had to digest a loss by 2%. Winfried Kretschmann in Baden-Württemberg, the winner of the evening with 30%, was at best a reluctant supporter of Merkel opening the borders – despite being a Green.

The resulting picture is highly ambivalent, leaving the German party system substantially shaken up. For one thing, the AfD is no longer only a force in eastern Germany, but is now a nation-wide party. German coalition building will consequently be a more colourful and complicated exercise in future. Anything goes, nothing is excluded, but nobody knows for sure what could or will work. All experienced German coalition schemes – red/green, CDU/liberal or grand coalition – which used to be the standard for decades no longer seem possible, a precarious presumption for what could result from the national election next autumn.

All experienced German coalition schemes no longer seem possible

German parties will need to fundamentally reshuffle, and nothing seems of the table: the Greens together with the conservative CDU in Baden-Württemberg; the Social-Democrats perhaps aligning with the Liberals in Rheinland-Pfalz, despite having nearly no programme points in common; and even a tri-coloured coalition headache for Rainer Haseloff in Sachsen-Anhalt of the CDU, the SPD and the Greens (“Kenya coalition”), as the CDU has formally ruled out any coalition involving the AfD. An astonishing little footnote here is that the liberals – voted out in the 2013 national elections – have made a come-back with 6% in Rheinland-Pfalz and 8.3% in Baden-Wurttemberg. For a party that had all but vanished from the political stage, these are quite remarkable results.

What German politics at large will make of this is unclear. Although the established parties tried to play down the results, something quite fundamental seems to have changed in over the weekend. With an unknown outcome for the regional coalitions in the month to come, and with Germany heading towards the 2017 national elections in fretful times for Europe, what is clear is that German politics has a new face: Frauke Petry, 40 years young, smart, pretty, often in short skirts on TV, and a mother of four. Hers is not a face that will go away any time soon.

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