Sunday, August 30, 2009

State Election Results no Boost for SPD

When it comes to assessing the impact of tonight's state elections in Thuringia, Saxony, and in Saarland on the national elections in September, five things seem to stand out at this early stage:

1. The Social Democrats are the party that remains under the biggest pressure to perform. Only at first sight do tonight's results look good for Steinmeier and the SPD. In Saxony, the party came out of the polls as only the fourth-strongest political force, making it lose its junior position in the state's government. In Saarland, the SPD, once more, lost a significant chunk of the vote. Only in Thuringia, where, for personal reasons, the CDU's incumbent prime minister was a hard sell, did the SPD gain votes. How this will translate into power remains to be seen. Nowhere can Steinmeier's party claim to have progressed anywhere towards its natural national option, i.e. a Red-Green coalition.

2. This leads to the key question for the upcoming four weeks: Where could Steinmeier potentially find a majority after September 27th? With Red-Green and Red-Yellow coalitions both being distant dreams, forming a coalition with Die Linke and the Greens is Steinmeier's only viable option to become chancellor. But with the party's repeated promise to not form a coalition with Lafontaine's party at the national level, the SPD has a huge credibility problem. It is unable to present to its voters a realistic path to the chancellorship. This sheds light on the SPD's huge dilemma: without re-embracing the left part of the political spectrum, it can't ever hope to regain a strong leadership position at the national level. At the same time, any rapprochement in the direction of Die Linke would cost the SPD indispensible political ground in the center. No surprise then, that neither Steinmeier nor M√ľntefering are able to explain to their voters or to anyone, how they intend to win the Battle for the Bundestag. They can't even define what winning means.

3. For the CDU, on the other hand, tonight's election were bad timing. While it was clear beforehand that Merkel's party would lose substantially in the Saarland and in Thuringia, tonight's bad numbers in both states make the seemingly invincible CDU look more vulnerable than it probably is. Even though the CDU came out first in all the votes, and even though nationally it still has all power options at its disposal, tonight created a negative psychology. This is why the party's chief ideologist and strategist, Roland Pofalla, looked nervous and pale while Steinmeier seemed to have a genuinely good time. For chancellor Merkel, this psychology, more than the actual election results should be cause for concern. It will be key for the CDU to not let this moment of perceived weakness turn into a protracted phase of bad karma. It should not be too difficult given the party's structural advantages, but Pofalla would have to play the game a lot more skillfully than tonight.

4. The FDP had a great night. The Free Democrats almost doubled their share of the vote in all three state elections, Moreover, in Saxony this success did not even come at the expense of the CDU, which is unusual. It seems that Westerwelle and his folks are doing their share of the work to make a CDU/FDP coalition possible. Mr. Westerwelle will let this be known to Angela Merkel again and again in the upcoming weeks.

5. Both in Saarland and in Thuringia, voter turnout increased. Looks like German democracy is more alive and kicking than some prominent doomsayers want us to believe.

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