Pyrrhic victory

Merkel’s CDU makes huge losses in Hesse election

Merkel in Hessen
Oh dear. Source: DPA/Silas Stein

Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition suffered heavy losses for the second time in as many weeks in a German state election that is likely to have national repercussions. The two parties in power in Berlin, the chancellor’s Christian Democratic Union and the center-left Social Democrats, lost 11 percentage points each in a high-stakes vote in Hesse on Sunday.

The poor result for Germany’s two biggest parties, just weeks after a similar defeat in Bavaria, underscores voters’ increasing frustration with the embattled “grand coalition” that governs them.

According to projections updated around 8pm, Ms. Merkel’s CDU remained the strongest party in Hesse. But its share of the vote plummeted to about 27 percent, its poorest result since 1966 in the wealthy state and a far cry from the 38 percent it achieved in the last state election just five years ago.

“We suffered painful losses,” said Hesse’s incumbent state premier Volker Bouffier. A staunch ally of the chancellor, Mr. Bouffier said that the election campaign in his state was heavily overshadowed by the incessant squabbling within the federal government in Berlin. “People want less fighting and more actual work done,” he said.

2018-10-28 – Hesse Election 7.57 pm extrap -01

The picture looks equally dire for the SPD, which got less than 20 percent of the vote according to current estimates. That’s two-thirds of the party’s 2013 result and its worst showing since 1946. The SPD’s top candidate, Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel, called this outcome “a bitter defeat.” And this comes on top of the party’s near wipeout in Bavaria earlier this month.

The clear winner of Sunday’s state polls is the Green Party, in another repeat of the recent Bavarian election. The environmentalists surged to 19.5 percent of the vote, up 8 percentage points since the last election five years ago and running neck-and-neck with the SPD.

The Alternative for Germany, or AfD, got 13 percent of the vote. That’s three times its tally from 2013, the year it was created. Confirming polls’ predictions, the far-right party, buoyed by a backlash against the arrival of more than 1 million refugees in Germany after 2015, is poised to enter the Hesse parliament, the last of Germany’s 16 state parliaments from which it was absent.

A razor-thin majority

But despite massive losses for the center-right CDU in Sunday’s vote, the chancellor’s party looks likely to cling to power in Hesse, a prosperous state that is home to Frankfurt, Germany’s financial capital. In projections throughout the evening, the outgoing CDU-Green coalition was forecast to win 61 seats out of 121, securing a razor-thin majority. Three-quarters of voters said they want the Greens to stay in government, a survey found.

Landtagswahl Hessen – Grüne
Sometimes tying for second feels better than coming in first. Source: DPA/Uwe Anspach.

And if the incumbent coalition doesn’t get enough seats, there would be other ways for the CDU to stay in power. A three-way coalition with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats was already on the cards before bedtime Sunday night.

Volker Bouffier’s likely re-election as state premier could make the CDU’s overall losses less painful and may somewhat improve Ms. Merkel’s political future after a turbulent year that inspired many to write her political obituary. The chancellor threw her weight behind her friend in Hesse and visited him four times on the campaign trail in recent weeks. Despite her party’s historically poor result, she may be heaving a huge sigh of relief, too.

And Mr. Bouffier, noting that his party fared better in the Hesse vote than it currently does in polls nationally, seems keen to stay in power. “Considering the circumstances, we can say that it’s a clear mandate to lead the [Hesse] government,” he said. Mr. Bouffier’s fortunes are likely to make life easier for Ms. Merkel within her party after a string of defeats. Crucially, they raise her chance of getting re-elected as party leader at the CDU’s convention in December.

The grand coalition in question — again

However, the SPD’s historic losses could mean yet more pain for the chancellor’s already troubled government coalition in Berlin.

According to a survey, the Social Democrats’ dismal showing is mainly due to the lack of central policy proposals that “inspire” voters. Furthermore, 63 percent of respondents said that the SPD should exit the grand coalition in Berlin and seek renewal in the opposition. The chorus from within the party to do exactly that grew louder just after the first results from Hesse came in. “People are fed up with the grand coalition,” said Raed Saleh, the SPD parliamentary group leader in Berlin’s state parliament. He demanded a new vote by the SPD’s rank and file on whether to quit the coalition.

But such a move, triggering a collapse of the government, would almost certainly lead to a snap election. And with the party currently polling at record-low levels, SPD heavyweights know that they stand to lose the most from that nuclear option. So they were quick to dismiss any calls to end the grand coalition.

“We went into the government because we really want to improve things — for families, for single parents, for caregivers,” said Lars Klingbeil, the party’s general secretary. He urged the coalition parties to “show that they have the power to work together.”

Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To reach the author:

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