Germany’s governing parties punished in state election
Berlin – Germany’s governing parties lost significant support in a state election Sunday that was marked by discontent with infighting in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s national government and prompted calls for her coalition to get its act together quickly.
Merkel’s conservatives emerged with an extremely lackluster win from the vote for the central Hesse region’s state legislature. Her center-left governing partners’ dismal performance left them level with the resurgent Greens in second place, while the far-right Alternative for Germany entered the last of Germany’s 16 state parliaments.
Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union was defending its 19-year hold on Hesse, previously a stronghold of the center-left Social Democrats, the chancellor’s coalition partners in Berlin.
Speculation has been widespread before the vote that a disastrous result for either or both parties could further destabilize the national government, prompting calls for the Social Democrats to walk out and possibly endangering Merkel’s own position. On Sunday, government leaders appeared keen to try and keep the show on the road.
Andrea Nahles, the Social Democrats’ leader, said that “the state of the government is unacceptable.”
She said her party would insist on Merkel’s governing coalition agreeing on “a clear, binding timetable” for implementing projects, adding that its implementation ahead of an already-agreed midterm review next fall will show “whether we are still in the right place in this government.”
The CDU’s general secretary, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, said the coalition needs to identify “three concrete projects for the coming months that we implement.” She didn’t specify what they might be.
Hesse’s conservative governor, Volker Bouffier, told supporters that “the message this evening to the parties in the government in Berlin is clear: people want less argument, more objectivity, more solutions.”
Merkel’s CDU won 27 percent of the vote Sunday and the Social Democrats 19.8 percent. When Hesse last elected its state legislature in 2013 – on the same day that Merkel, at the height of her power, won a third term as chancellor – they won 38.3 and 30.7 percent, respectively. It was the worst result in the region for the Social Democrats since World War II.
There were big gains for the Greens, who took 19.8 percent of the vote, compared with 11.1 percent five years ago. And the anti-migration, anti-establishment Alternative for Germany won 13.1 percent.
The pro-business Free Democrats won 7.5 and the Left Party 6.3 percent of the vote.
Voters have appeared generally satisfied with Bouffier’s outgoing state government. It was the first coalition between the CDU and the traditionally left-leaning Greens to last a full parliamentary term, and an unexpectedly harmonious alliance.
But only the Greens, who are in opposition nationally, benefited at the polls.
The result left Bouffier’s outgoing CDU-Green coalition with a one-seat parliamentary majority. A CDU-Social Democrat coalition, or a combination of the Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats, would also have a one-seat majority, but neither appears very likely.
The election campaign in prosperous Hesse, which includes Germany’s financial center of Frankfurt, has been largely overshadowed by the woes of a federal coalition in office only since March. The state is home to 6.2 million of Germany’s 82 million people.
Two weeks ago, both Merkel’s partners in the federal “grand coalition” of what have traditionally been Germany’s strongest political forces – the Christian Social Union, the Bavaria-only sister to the chancellor’s CDU, and the Social Democrats – were battered in a state election in neighboring Bavaria.
The Social Democrats, who were badly beaten in last year’s national election, only reluctantly entered Merkel’s fourth-term national government in March. Many are dismayed by what has happened since.
The government has been through two major crises, first over whether to turn back small numbers of migrants at the German-Austrian border and then over what to do with the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence service after he was accused of downplaying far-right violence against migrants. It has failed to convince voters that it’s achieving much on other matters.
Karl-Rudolf Korte, a political science professor at the University of Duisburg-Essen, predicted on ZDF television that its leaders “will do everything to save the ‘grand coalition’ for the next three years.”
Being able to keep Bouffier, a deputy CDU leader, as governor would stabilize Merkel in the short term, he said. Germany’s chancellor of the past 13 years has indicated that she will seek another two-year term as CDU leader in December.