Germany’s Center Collapses in Hamburg

As in many European countries, the political in Germany appears to be faltering. In East Germany, voters are drifting to the fringes, while in the West it’s doing a bit better – though cracks are starting to appear. The election last weekend in Hamburg is one such crack.

Merkel’s Party Just Had a Mini-Doomsday

Merkel’s party, the centre-right CDU, had its worst showing in Hamburg in the last 70 years. The party got just 11.2% of the vote – a tremendous loss in one of the country’s largest states.

During a particularly turbulent time in German politics, this comes as part of a wider trend. A few weeks ago, the Thüringen branch of the party defied the national CDU (and post-war convention) by combining votes with the far-right AfD to install a state premier from a weaker third party, the right-leaning FDU.

The tactic outraged both the public and politicians, forcing the premier’s resignation just a day later. Party leader and possible Merkel successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer then announced her resignation as well. This meant that the CDU had no national party leader to lean on going into the election, and the national party must now appear somewhat rudderless to voters.

A More Robust Left-wing

In Hamburg, those voters turned elsewhere. The SPD, the social-democratic party of Germany, was able to shore up its support to 39%. While it’s good news for the party, it is not that surprising: the SPD has historically been the largest in the state.

It was the Greens who took the most voters away from the CDU. Running on a leftist platform, which aims to make Hamburg the “climate capital of Germany” and carbon neutral by 2035, it surged into second place, with 24.2% of the vote. That’s double its vote share from the last regional election in 2015.

The result of this election is likely to be another coalition between the SPD and the Greens, with a bit more leverage for the latter. This shouldn’t be much a strain for either of them: the platforms of both parties are much more similar in Hamburg than in other federal states.

What About the AfD?

The AfD was never likely to be a major player in the metropolitan state, but it’s worth also nothing how they did in the election. The far-right party held onto its parliamentary seats in Hamburg only just, garnering 5.3% of the vote (to have seats in the parliament, a party must have more than 5% of the vote).

Although this is a loss, it represents only a small dip in support for the party. Opposition politicians and media had hoped that a greater drop would follow the deadly shooting in Hanau last week, which killed ten. Police from the town have said that the shooter was motivated by xenophobic political material, and much ink has been spilled in the German media on the link between the AfD and the rise of violent German nativists.

Nevertheless, members of the SPD were jubilant because of the result, having feared a rightwing surge after Thüringen. There were shouts of: “Nazis out, Nazis out!” from the headquarters in Hamburg.

What Happens Next?

Many Germans were watching this election closely. It is the only regular state-level election to take place this year. What happens in Hamburg, as one of the largest states in the country, will influence what happens at the national level.

The results from Hamburg brought about jubilation for the left, from whom state elections in the last few years have been a mix of wins and losses. The astonishing collapse of the center, however, should be cause for worry for those who mostly look for stability. While it is not surprising for voters in less economically sound parts of the country to drift to the extremes — like the previously communist east — it is alarming that in a wealthy, prosperous region like Hamburg the center is also struggling.

It’s for that reason that the SPD should celebrate modestly. They have been given a mandate by their voters to expand social-democratic policies and to work toward tacking the climate crisis. But, without a center to fall back on, they are in a precarious position. Going forward, if the SPD and Greens can’t deliver on their promises, they won’t be losing voters to the center — but to the right.