State Elections in Germany: New Scenarios, Same Old Issues and a Political Stress Test

This Sunday, the German states of Saxony and Brandenburg are due to elect their respective parliaments for the next five years. It is a landmark election with implications for the rest of the republic, and particularly the grand coalition in Berlin.

In Saxony, the CDU has been the quasi-hegemon for almost three decades. Almost the same applies to the SPD in Brandenburg. The rules had been set. And elections had been decided before any vote was cast.

Since 2014, however, the political landscape has changed. The hard-right populist AfD (“Alternative for Germany”) began to establish itself and introduced a momentum toward the erosion of the old order. It should have been a warning, a red flag for all other parties. It was not. And the fallout will be felt particularly this weekend.

Much has been made of the role that the grand coalition has played in the rise of German populism. And relevant data does indeed indicate that the immigration policy has played a crucial role in all of it. It is only one side of the coin, however.

Eastern Germany is a different place. It is not only displayed in the rift between east Germans and west Germans that continues to exist but in disenfranchisement, many people seem to feel. As a result, they have turned their backs on politics long ago.

In 2014, less than half of eligible voters participated in the election. High unemployment and, in certain areas, rudimental infrastructure have also played a role in making it a fertile ground for extremism – which is illustrated by the fact that these were the only states that ever championed fascist parties in their parliaments. Those parties usually disappeared as quickly as they appeared, due to lack of structure and a real devotion for utter incompetence. And while the other parties were appalled, they never considered them to be a serious competitor.

The AfD, however, is different. Not necessarily in its ideology, but in terms of populist cachet – its grand strategy. The result is a continuous rise in popularity. Even a win this Sunday is not inconceivable. Yet, the AfD will not govern in any of these states, as all other parties have dismissed the idea of any form of cooperation. Meanwhile, the SPD is fighting for survival and the CDU tries to save face, hoping to maintain power in Saxony. It is an election that is due to shake up German politics – yet again.

The latest polls indicate significant changes in Saxony’s state parliament compared to 2014. The previous election was won dominantly by the CDU, which received 39.4% of the votes. The Left, a party that continues to champion communist elements in its core, received a respectable 18.9%. Third was the SPD with 12.4%. The AfD was able to secure its first-ever appearance in Saxony’s parliament, with 9.7% of votes cast – a strong debut. Emerging on the scene and receiving almost double digits is far from being a regular occurrence in Germany.

The forecast paints, as could have been anticipated, a very different picture this week. The CDU faces significant losses, and could fall below 30%. The SPD finds itself in a more peculiar position. Germany’s oldest party has continued a historically downwards trend and is starring at single digits – currently 7%. It is, by now, a fight for survival, as Germany’s parliaments apply a 5% stipulation. Parties receiving less than 5% must not participate. The big winner will once again be the AfD. Currently projected at 24%, the party likely to more than double its previous result. Exceeding Greens (11%) and the liberal FDP – currently at 5% – and also fighting for parliamentary relevance. The Left remains strong at 16%.

Prima facie, one conclusion can be drawn immediately: a continuation of the CDU/SPD majority coalition of 2014 will not be facilitated. Which, in turn, makes the formation of a new government rather complex. Minister-President Kretschmer (CDU) has not made it easier by stating his proclivity to not cooperate with the AfD, nor will he be head of a minority government by his own account. With this self-imposed restriction, Kretschmer’s options are restricted. His dilemma increases even further if the SPD was to fall under 5%. It could force him to govern in a three-party coalition, most likely The Left and Greens, which brings its own issues. All parties are diametrically opposed in their ideology and their political visions for the state. On the one hand is the conservative CDU, on the other, environmentalist and quasi-Marxism. It is not the foundations that solid governments are built upon.

Meanwhile, circumstances in Brandenburg are equally problematic, yet fairly different. In 2014 the SPD was the big winner (32%), in front of CDU (23%) and The Left (18.6%). AfD and Greens received 12.2% and 6.2% respectively. A coalition was formed between SPD and The Left, led by Minister-President Woidke (SPD).

For Sunday, the latest polls indicate a close race between AfD (22%), SPD (22%), CDU (18%), The Left (15%) and Greens (12%). The current government – just as in Saxony – may lose its majority. It opens the door for interesting constellations. One of those is a socialist triumvirate between SPD, The Left and Greens, as practised in the states of Bremen and Thuringia. Arithmetically, three-way constellations with the AfD would be possible also. However, for the above-stated reason, parties in Brandenburg will not engage in talks, either. It leaves the CDU with yet another conundrum as, without AfD participation, a “bourgeois-conservative” government cannot be formed.

All of it raises the question, why would no one even consider a coalition with the AfD, when it is obvious that the party has the necessary votes? Coalitions have been ruled out previous to elections before, only to then confirm an agreement post-election. The AfD detestation, however, is more than lip-service. It is a political dictum. And not without a reason. Particularly the party’s eastern German fractions have openly been fraternising with elements of Nazism and other hate groups. In fact, several party members have been associated with fascist organisations. These are elements that no astute politician seeks to become a part of. It would be career suicide and highly detrimental to Germany’s reputation.

Besides Saxony and Brandenburg, these elections will have an impact on the grand coalition in Berlin also. In recent months, CDU chair Kramp-Karrenbauer has lost almost all of her “starter’s bonus” due to atrocious decision making and rather ill-advised remarks that have people questioning her competence. If the CDU in Saxony and Brandenburg witnessed subpar results, Kramp-Karrenbauer would be held accountable. A cliché post-election loss press conference, in which a party chair vows to become the people’s champion, evaluate everything and everybody, might be insufficient this time. For Kramp-Karrenbauer, this election could cease her aspirations of becoming the party’s next chancellor candidate and thereby initiating yet another internal power vacuum and struggle.

For the SPD, another catastrophic result in Saxony as well as potentially not being able to govern in Brandenburg would equate to a disaster. Failing to satisfy the 5% stipulation in Sachsen can be deemed political bankruptcy. Either of these occurrences has the potential to become the final nail in the grand coalition’s coffin. The SPD has been facing a severe upwards trend in almost all German states, but also on the Federal level in recent years. Rumours regarding an early grand coalition exit have been circulating for a while, as the partnership is deemed to be the reason for the party’s demise. However, one should not expect an immediate departure post-election. The party is currently led by an interim chair, Schäfer-Gümbel, who does not have the power nor the support to execute a decision of this magnitude. Circumstances are likely to change in December, however, when a new chair will be confirmed. The majority of the candidates have been opposing the grand coalition and this week’s elections can certainly become a coherent argument in favour of ceasing the project.

Saxony and Brandenburg are in a political dilemma. While parties rightfully refuse to cooperate with the AfD, it has initiated a vicious circle. These elections are particularly peculiar, as establishing a coalition will be severely difficult. Depending on the results, the CDU might be forced to govern with the hard left. If this was to occur, more conservative voters may feel alienated and the AfD could gain even more traction in years to come. For the meantime, however, the SPD’s goal remains survival, while the CDU tries to hold on to its power. It has become the modus operandi for both parties, but it cannot be sustainable. Whatever happens on Saxony and Brandenburg on Sunday, all of Germany will feel it.