The clouds that have gathered over Germany’s ruling “grand coalition” for more than a year not only failed to disperse on Sunday but may even have darkened a little.
In elections in the eastern states of Saxony and Brandenburg, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and their junior Social Democratic partners each lost much support compared with the identical elections of 2014. The extreme rightwing Alternative for Germany (AfD) came second in both states, well ahead of other parties.
However, the CDU won in Saxony and the SPD won in Brandenburg, giving the “grand coalition” in Berlin a chance of staggering on until the next Bundestag elections, due in September 2021. If the coalition survives, it will be largely for the negative reason that each party fears the consequences of a snap national election.
According to exit polls, the CDU took 32 per cent of the vote in Saxony, the most populous of the five states of former communist eastern Germany. The CDU can console itself that it fended off a strong challenge from AfD. However, the CDU’s share of the vote fell by almost 8 percentage points from its performance in Saxony’s 2014 election.
Meanwhile, in Brandenburg, an SPD stronghold since German reunification in 1990, the Social Democrats were estimated to have won 27.5 per cent of the vote, down from 31.9 per cent in 2014. While this was enough to top the poll in Brandenburg, the SPD put in a disastrous performance in Saxony, with an estimated 8 per cent of the vote.
Individual state elections are by no means an accurate guide to outcomes in national elections, but the trend of falling support for Germany’s two mass parties is unmistakable. In the 2017 Bundestag vote, each scored its worst result since the restoration of democracy in western Germany after the second world war. The trend has continued since then in western German state elections and in May’s European Parliament elections.
Both the CDU and the SPD now face difficult choices, made worse by an economic slowdown in Germany that owes much to international trade tensions and the fraying of the US-led world order that for decades provided a solid basis for Germany’s prosperity and political stability.
The CDU, having replaced Ms Merkel with Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as party chief last year, must decide whether to contest the next Bundestag elections, whenever they occur, with their new leader as its candidate for chancellor. Her unsteady performance and declining popularity with German voters in the past eight months have given plenty of ammunition to her internal CDU critics.
For its part, the SPD, struggling to pick a new leader after the party’s heavy defeat in the European elections, will soon start a review of the “grand coalition” that is bound to include consideration of whether to pull out of the partnership with the CDU.
The hardest questions to answer are, first, whether an early Bundestag election would simply condemn the SPD to another crushing defeat, and, second, whether a more radical policy platform, as advocated by leftwingers, would stand much chance of winning back voters from the Greens, AfD and other parties.
The Saxony and Brandenburg elections illustrated the AfD’s continuing strength in eastern Germany. The party combines a strident anti-immigration message with the image of a movement that stands up for easterners, many of whom see themselves as ignored or abandoned by elites who promised much and delivered less after reunification.
Arguably, however, AfD’s results were below expectations, for some pre-election opinion polls had suggested until a few weeks ago that the party might win at least one of the two eastern states. Instead, it seems hard for the AfD to make a decisive breakthrough even in the east.
This illustrates that AfD’s chief impact on German politics is to contribute to the fragmentation of a party system that was dominated for decades by the CDU and its CSU Bavarian sister party on the right, and by the SPD on the left, with the liberal Free Democrats and Greens making up the balance.
With the two mass parties in relative decline, and AfD regarded as an utterly unacceptable coalition partner by everyone at national level, the task of forming stable governments to rule Europe’s largest economy is becoming ever more awkward.