Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Decisive Weekend?

This Sunday, August 30, the state parliaments (Landtage) of Saxony, Thuringia, and Saarland are elected. Only four weeks before the votes for the next Bundestag are cast, these state level elections of course draw much public attention and receive significant media coverage even in nation-wide newspapers and TV programs as they are perceived to be a testrun for what will happen on September 27 at the federal level. But can this Sunday's results really serve as an indicator for the outcome of the general election, maybe even telling us who will be the next chancellor? One may, at least, entertain some doubts.

To begin with, Saxony, Thuringia, and Saarland are rather medium-sized to small states, accounting for no more than roughly 10% of Germany's electorate. Thus, only 63 out of the total 611 members of the current Bundestag were selected in these three Länder. Furthermore, a party's strength usually differs significantly across Germany. If we look at the results of the Bundestag election 2005, the CDU/CSU won 35.2% of the national votes, but in Thuringia they only got 25.7%, in Saxony 30.0%, and in Saarland 30.2%. And the Left, to give another impressive example, was then elected by 8.7% of the German voters, being however much stronger in the three states under review (Saarland: 18.5%, Saxony: 22.8%, and Thuringia: 26.1%). Finally, voters have quite often drawn a distinction between sub-national and federal polls, even if they took place on the same day, casting their ballots for different parties.

Predicting the composition of the next Bundestag on the basis of this Sunday's results would therefore be nothing else than an ill-founded guess. Nonetheless, the parties' success or failure in the three state level polls will strongly influence the national election campaign until September 27.

Firstly, this campaign has lacked any controversial issue so far, any mobilizing debate, it has not yet gained momentum and is characterized by many observers as one of the most boring campaigns ever. So, in the absence of any substantial policy conflict, the outcome of the sub-national elections will certainly provide at least one interesting topic for both politicians and the media to talk and write about.

Secondly, none of the three state parliament elections will most probably see a clear winner. The CDU, until now governing with an absolute majority in the legislatures of Saarland and Thuringia, may defend its position as strongest party in these states but is said to loose up to 12% of the votes. If this is the case, the CDU can only stay in power by forming coalition governments in both parliaments. Moreover, it is not clear at all that these could be coalitions with its favorite partner, the FDP. Only in Saxony, the chances for such a coalition are slightly better, which would allow the Conservatives to get rid of its current regional ally, the SPD.

The Social Democrats, on the other hand, may well expect a larger share of the votes than in the last elections, at least in Thuringia and Saxony. This looks as a clear success at first glance -- a success that may prove to be a heavy burden soon. Because if the SPD quickly agrees to form "grand coalitions" with the CDU at the state level it makes it more difficult for the Social Democrats to explain why they would not like to continue the same coalition model at national level. The alternatives, SPD-Left- or SPD-Left-Green-coalitions, are even worse. In this case, intensive discussions will arise whether or not this could be an option for the future federal government, too. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the SPD's candidate for chancellor, has always rejected such considerations because he esteems it very difficult to reach an agreement with the Left on many political issues, especially in foreign and security, fiscal or social policy. But in case of coalition talks between SPD and the Left in one or more states, CDU/CSU and FDP will certainly question Steinmeier's political credibility (or his influence in his own party), causing serious problems for him and the SPD.

Even for the Greens, a substantial increase of votes and influence in state politics may prove a double-edged sword: negotiations including the Left will be criticized by the Greens' middle-class supporters, and any attempt to form a government with CDU and FDP -- called a Jamaica coalition for this country's flag being black, yellow and green, the colors of the three parties involved -- would be rejected by the Greens' many left-wing voters.

Hence, if the ballots are cast as expected in this Sunday's elections in Saarland, Saxony, and Thuringia, the following coalition talks will most likely be delayed until after September 27. Particularly the larger parties, CDU/CSU and SPD, will try in the meantime to benefit from the resulting political vacuum, mutually accusing each other of having failed to secure stable majorities. In consequence, the political debate until the Bundestag election will significantly intensify, although it'll be a controversy about power distribution, not about policy. This weekend is perhaps not decisive for the Bundestag election itself, but very important at least for the future of the electoral campaign.

Jörg Siegmund

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