Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Surging Left?

It has become a tradition for pundits to obsess about the latest state Landtag elections as barometers of national political sentiment and future national results. Certainly, state results just a month before a Bundestag election take on even more significance--as the results in the Saarland, Thuringia and Saxony last weekend attest. I also told myself that I would not buy into the media-hype, which so often over-exaggerates the results and their impact.

So, from a sober perspective, these results are nothing surprising. The parties' final tallies corresponded pretty well to what polls were predicting for quite some time. In Saxony, the CDU did quite well, losing less than 1% from its 2004 result. In Thuringia, its 12 point decline was largely due to the scandals surrounding the incumbent minister president. In the Saarland, the 13% decline was more significant, but the CDU is still the largest party. One could also point out that the dominant CDU scored very high in all three states in 2004 (over 40%) so there was nowhere to go but down, especially given the vicissitudes of local politics and the ever-present political pendulum. In terms of national significance, it has been pointed out that the three states comprise only about 10% of the country's population, so are hardly representative bellwethers.

On the other hand, I cannot help but to be alarmed at how well the Left Party did in all states--27.4% in Thuringia, 20.6% in Saxony (although 3% less than 2004) and a whopping 21.3% in the Saarland--which was more than 5% more than the last public opinion polls indicated. I am thus increasingly skeptical of the accuracy of the national polls that have estimated Left Party support to hover around 9% for months now. It should also be pointed out that the party is experiencing a marked uptick in popularity in states such as Lower Saxony.

I suspect that support for this party, and the left in general is being underestimated. This would not be surprising. Many have long been surprised that the "bourgeois" parties were doing as well as they were in light of the on-going financial and economic crisis. Left-populist parties continue to advocate easy answers to the economic malaise, which also resonate with what many have observed is a dispositional conservatism or aversion to change and risk in contemporary Germany. Moreover, the Left Party now has quite a bit of momentum, which is invigorating its leadership and rallying the base. I think that many have underestimated the leadership troika Oskar Lafontaine/Gregor Gysi/Lothar Bisky, who not only are seasoned political operatives, but are also among the most charismatic politicians active today.

The long-predicted CDU/CSU-FDP seems more and more unlikely. I suspect there will be surprises on election day and that the Left Party (and even SPD) will do much better than polls are predicting. I also do not understand why Merkel is continuing to conduct such a laid-back campaign. Perhaps she is waiting for the final stretch to unleash a more aggressive attack on opponents. But, I fear that unless she starts to actively counter the Left Party (and the SPD), it will be too late.

--Eric Langenbacher

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