Can Germany's scandal-hit CDU win back ground in state elections?

The federal states of Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz are kicking off the country's "Superwahljahr".

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This Sunday marks the start of what is known in German politics as the Superwahljahr or “super election year”. On 14 March voters in two south-western federal states, Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz, will go to the polls in state elections (Germany has 16 states in total). Then, in June, comes an election in the eastern state of Sachsen-Anhalt. These will be followed, on 26 September, by federal elections nationwide as well as state elections in Berlin and two other eastern states. In other words: lots of people in Europe’s largest economy are going to vote, at national and regional levels, in the next few months. And the results will have consequences for the whole of the Continent.

Both of the states voting this Sunday were traditionally strongholds of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Angela Merkel’s party. Baden-Württemberg borders France to the west and Switzerland to the south, and encompasses the picturesque Black Forest. It is economically centred on the car industries of Stuttgart (home to Porsche and Daimler), the family-owned Mittelstand firms in the surrounding hills that supply them and prosperous university towns such as Tübingen and Freiburg. From 1953 to 2011 it was led by the CDU without interruption, producing such party luminaries as Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister who played a prominent, hawkish role in the Eurozone crisis.

The Green Party always had its strongholds in the state, particularly Freiburg, which produced Germany’s first Green mayor of a large city in 2002. But the 2011 state election, which took place in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, saw the Greens (who had long opposed nuclear energy) surge into first place. Since then Baden-Württemberg’s minister-president has been Winfried Kretschmann, a Green who is so centrist that his last election win was built partly on an advert that ended with him climbing into the back of a big Mercedes.

Rheinland-Pfalz, like Baden-Württemberg, is another composite state concocted by weaving together a patchwork of old kingdoms and regions. Known in English as “Rhineland-Palatinate”, it borders Luxembourg, Belgium and France and incorporates the wine-growing hills of the Middle Rhine as well as historic cities such as Trier, Worms and Koblenz (fans of the German film series Heimat will also know it as home to the Hunsrück uplands). Rheinland-Pfalz used to be solid CDU territory. The party governed the state from its creation in 1946 until 1991 and its most famous political son was Helmut Kohl, who as German chancellor delighted in inviting foreign visitors to his favourite restaurant in the small town of Deidesheim for his favourite meal of Saumagen (a dish of pig’s stomach similar to haggis). Guests included Mikhail Gorbachev, François Mitterrand, George Bush senior and Margaret Thatcher, who hated the experience.

Since 1991 the state has been led by the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), often with the right-liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens. It is now under the popular SPD minister-president Malu Dreyer, who governs with the Greens and the FDP together in an Ampel (traffic light) coalition, so called because the three parties’ colours are red, green and yellow.

[See also: As the Merkel era approaches its end, the German left has several paths to the chancellery]

The CDU really ought to be able to win back both states, or at least one of them. But Kretschmann and Dreyer are popular. And more than that: the party is in something approaching a crisis. Germany’s achingly slow vaccine roll-out is being blamed primarily on the party that leads the federal government. The CDU has been hit by several alleged corruption scandals involving mask procurement: one of its MPs and another from the Christian Social Union (CSU, the Bavarian party with which it sits in the Bundestag) have resigned in the past days. Polls show the gain in support for the CDU/CSU that accompanied Germany’s impressive early response to the pandemic last year is dissolving. Angela Merkel remains popular, but some of the sheen has come off her late-chancellorship and the power vacuum that she leaves behind on the German centre-right is becoming stark.

Polls suggest that the CDU is on track for defeats, possibly of embarrassing proportions, in both Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz on Sunday. That would be bad news for Armin Laschet, the minister-president of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (immediately north of Rheinland-Pfalz) who was elected the new CDU leader in January. Doubts are already swirling about his suitability to be the CDU/CSU chancellor candidate in the federal election in September.

Poor results this weekend would encourage speculation about whether Markus Söder, the canny and charismatic minister-president of Bavaria and leader of the CSU, would make a better candidate. The CDU/CSU alliance has twice drawn its chancellor candidate from the CSU, once with Franz Josef Strauss in 1980 and once with Edmund Stoiber in 2002. On neither occasion did popularity in Bavaria translate to nationwide election success. Söder, who publicly denies he is interested in running but might agree if the candidacy were offered on a silver platter, is a more versatile candidate than either of those. And the post-Merkel CDU seems only to have underwhelming personalities to offer.

It is going to be a dramatic few months in German politics. For now, all eyes are on the results from Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz. Then will come the question of whether Laschet or Söder gets the CDU/CSU candidacy.

Then, the Greens’ choice for chancellor candidate is expected to be announced in late spring. The party has seen a surge in support since the last election and now comes second after the CDU/CSU, and ahead of the SPD, in most polls. The choice will be between the party’s two leaders: Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck.

Then will come the election in Sachsen-Anhalt, then the federal election campaign, the vote and then possibly long weeks of negotiations. Will there be a CDU/CSU-Green coalition, as seems most likely, or another CDU/CSU-SPD grand coalition, or a traffic light coalition (Green, SPD, FDP) led by one of the Greens or the SPD, or an all-left government of Greens, SPD and the socialist Left party?

The answer to that question will have huge implications for Europe. My current view, expressed in my New Statesman column this week, is that the best outcome for Germany and Europe would be an Ampel (traffic light) coalition of the Greens, SPD and FDP led by Baerbock of the Greens. Why? I think the CDU/CSU would benefit from a post-Merkel spell of renewal in opposition. Germany’s federal executive needs to be regenerated after the long years of CDU/CSU-SPD grand coalition and the Greens, especially Baerbock, would provide it.

The Greens are also the most realistic of the German parties on foreign policy and decarbonisation. Together with the SPD, they are in my view also the most sensible on fiscal policy, both within Germany and at a European level. And while the FDP has often flirted with populist positions, and sits on the right of the European liberal spectrum, it is at least serious about the digital economy (on which Germany is dismally conservative) and is overall probably preferable to the socialist Left party as a government partner.

That said, I remain open-minded. There are arguments, too, for a CDU/CSU-Green coalition and for an SPD-led coalition with either the FDP or the Left.

In any case, you will be able to follow all the twists and turns of the German election campaign, and the coalition negotiations afterwards, on the New Statesman, where we will be covering the Superwahljahr from our office here in Berlin. 

[See also: Why pro-Europeans should be incensed about the EU's vaccines debacle]

Jeremy Cliffe is International Editor of the New Statesman.

He co-hosts the weekly global affairs podcast, World Review.

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