Crisis-ridden SPD wins state parliamentary elections in Hamburg

Supporters of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) with Aydan Oezoguz (C), a deputy chairperson of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) react to exit polls on the evening of the regional elections in the German federal state of Hamburg in Hamburg, Germany, 23 February 2020. [EPA-EFE/FOCKE STRANGMANN]

Voters in Hamburg gave the SPD one of their best election results in recent years in a regional election on Sunday (23 February). With 39% of the vote, Peter Tschentscher (SPD) will continue as the city’s mayor, while the Greens doubled their share of the vote to reach 24,2%. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU, however, performed poorly.

With voter turnout at 62%, a large increase from the historic low in 2015, the city of Hamburg delivered a clear win for left-wing parties. While the SPD lost 6% of its vote share from the previous election in 2015, it remains the top party in the city by a wide margin. The election results indicate the likely continuation of the coalition between the SPD and Greens, and lead candidate for the Greens Katharina Fegebank would then continue on as the city’s second mayor.

The two parties further consolidated their majority, receiving a combined 63.2% of the vote compared to 57.9% five years ago. But the Greens will have a more prominent position now, having jumped from 12.3% to 24.2%.

These gains came from both sides of the political spectrum although more strongly from the left: 25% of its new supporters came from the SPD and 6% from the CDU. National party leader Robert Habeck celebrated the “fantastic result” and was confident the SPD will continue working with the Greens.

The election comes on the heels of the terrorist attack in Hanau, where a man apparently motivated by racism raked a shisha bar with bullets, killing nine people in the worst right-wing terrorist attack in Germany since reunification.

Since the shooting, many have drawn parallels between the far-right AfD’s rhetoric and the recent increase in right-wing violence, pointing in particular to AfD election posters targeting shisha bars. Former federal chair of the Greens, Cem Özdemir, condemned the party as the “political arm of hate.” 

In Hamburg, this criticism was translated clearly into a call to throw the party out of the state parliament, and the AfD indeed lost ground. After receiving 6.1% of the vote in 2015, initial projections showed the party below the 5% threshold, but later results put it at 5.3%. 

An official count and confirmation of the results are expected today (24 February).

A post-Thuringia election

Hamburg was the first electoral test for both Merkel’s conservative CDU and the liberal FDP after the crisis in Thuringia. With 11.2%, the CDU had their worst-ever result in a Hamburg election, and 70% of the electorate claimed that the events in Thuringia damaged the party. 

CDU General Secretary Paul Ziemiak called it a “bitter day for the CDU…there’s no way to sugarcoat it” and admitted that “what happened in Thuringia didn’t help.” Saarland’s state premier, Tobias Hans, called the Hamburg election “a result that must scare us, even as a federal party.” He went further calling the party “an up-to-date picture of lack of leadership,” particularly after the Thuringian crisis.

On 5 February, in a push to avert the left-wing government led by Bodo Ramelow (Die Linke), Thomas Kemmerich (FDP) was elected to lead Thuringia with votes from both the CDU and the AfD.

This was a stunning first in post-war German history and sparked nation-wide protests. While Kemmerich has since stepped down, the crisis continues as the CDU is negotiating with the left-wing red-red-green coalition to determine who will be the next state premier.

On Friday (21 February), the state parties reached an agreement to end the crisis as the Thuringian CDU pledged to help elect Ramelow as state premier in a vote on 4 March. In return, the state will hold new elections in April 2021.

The backlash from the national CDU was swift, as the compromise goes against their policy of not working with parties at the extreme ends of the political spectrum.

Two of the current candidates running to lead the party, Health Minister Jens Spahn and former parliamentary group leader Friedrich Merz, have condemned the agreement, claiming that it hurts the party’s credibility. Secretary-General Ziemiak went even further, warning that “whoever elects Mr Ramelow as state premier as a candidate of the Left Party is violating the decisions of the CDU.”

For the FDP, the loss could mean leaving the state parliament, as the party sits squarely on the 5% threshold.

Hamburg elections, pose (another) crash test for Germany’s mainstream parties

Voters in the city state of Hamburg will elect their new parliament on 23 February, the first elections to take place after the Thuringian political turmoil broke out earlier this month. This is yet another test for Germany’s traditional parties that could seal the end of the country’s traditional political landscape.   

City v. Berlin: Hamburg SPD charting their own course

For the SPD, the Hamburg results were a welcome success after years of political setbacks.

In his victory speech, the current mayor and lead candidate for the SPD, Peter Tschentscher, highlighted these challenges, noting “in the middle of 2019, when we were preparing our election campaign, we had to endure a lot”.

“The things in Berlin, the CDU/CSU who were arguing about the refugee issues, the resignation of Andrea Nahles…[but] we have been confident that if we focus on what we have done in this city and if we get the messages across about what we are going to do in the next few years, that we can really do what we have done in the last decades.”

Their success has also been credited to the city’s SPD charting a different course from the national party, which has recently drifted further left.

Before the election, Tschentscher told Der Spiegel that he does not like “some things the SPD is currently associated with at the federal level.” He additionally rejected offers of help from the new SPD leading duo of Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken, who come from the left wing of the party.

Analysing the results, Finance Minister and Tschentscher’s predecessor, Olaf Scholz, said they show not only that the party can win, but also that this strategy could be a new way forward.

“Of course we all agree that the path that became visible here is one that we can all take together and become strong with,” he told German television network ZDF.

Die Linke delivers a Hamburger oddity

While Die Linke made small gains in the Hamburg election, one of its own candidates cast a huge shadow on the party: Tom Radtke, an 18-year-old student and former Fridays For Future activist, gained notoriety during the campaign with confusing and slanderous statements.

On Saturday, he posed under a flag of the right-wing radical “Identitarian Movement”. He previously accused an unnamed SPD politician of paedophilia, glued posters of himself over those of his own party and accused the Fridays For Future movement in Hamburg of having totalitarian features.

Due to the specific Hamburg electoral procedure, he could still be elected to the Hamburg parliament but the party has already distanced itself from Radtke and said he would not be part of Die Linke‘s parliamentary group should he be elected.

His photo and his description have been removed from the party’s website, and the following statement has been added:

“Radtke now appears openly with members of the neo-fascist Identitarian Movement. Since the publication of his anti-Semitic tweets…a party expulsion procedure has been underway. We distance ourselves from him and his statements. In the unlikely event of his election by personal suffrage, he will not be part of the Die Linke faction.”

Next up: Munich

In three weeks, voters in the Bavarian capital will elect their mayor and city council.

The popular SPD incumbent Dieter Reiter is likely to be re-elected on 15 March, to the detriment of CSU, the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria. The CSU even has to fear for its place in the run-off vote while the Greens could – again – become the big winners in the city council elections.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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