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

A cyclist rides in front of election posters of candidates in the Hamburg state election in Hamburg, Germany, 18 February 2020. The Hamburg state election will be held on 23 February. [EPA-EFE/DAVID HECKER]

Voters in the northern 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. It is yet another test for Germany’s established parties that could hasten the end of the country’s traditional political landscape.   

In a country that cultivates federalism to such a high degree, it is only logical that the impact of local and regional elections is being felt across political Germany. That was the case this month after pro-Business Free Democrat (FDP) candidate Thomas Kemmerich was elected as Thuringia state premier with the combined support of the conservatives of the CDU and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

It might happen once again this Sunday when voters in Germany’s second largest city elect their new parliament.

FDP veteran and former Minister of the Interior, Gerhart Baum, said that he expects a decision after the Hamburg election on how to proceed with FDP current leader Christian Lindner. “The Hamburg election will show whether he is capable of remaining at the top of the party”, Baum told newspaper “Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger“.

“His tactical failure that caused the scandal in Thuringia was Lindner’s second big mistake as party leader after the cancellation of the Jamaica coalition,” added Baum. 

Baum referred to the three-way coalition government talks that followed the 2017 general election involving the CDU, FDP and the Greens, whose political colours match the Jamaican flag. While the three parties were close to reaching an agreement after difficult and intense negotiations, Lindner surprised the Greens and the CDU/CSU by leaving the negotiations.

“Lindner is under pressure because many liberals have not understood why he suddenly left the negotiations,” Ulrich Eith, Professor of Political Science at the Albert-Ludwigs-University in Freiburg, explained to EURACTIV. Eith is also director of the Studienhaus Wiesneck, an institute for political education in Baden-Württemberg.

Latest polls show the Social-Democrat (SPD) in Hamburg on 37%, compared to 14% in nationwide surveys, far ahead of the CDU which is expected to hover around 14%, its worst ever score in Hamburg. Surveys also put the Greens at 25%, the leftist Die Linke at 8%, far-right AfD at 7%, and the FDP between 4.5 and 5%, the threshold needed to enter the parliament. The so-called Red-Green coalition should therefore continue to build a stable majority – albeit with a different balance of power.

The Greens and Die Linke as stable political parties

If chances are good that current mayor and SPD candidate Peter Tschentscher will win, he is nonetheless expected to reach a lower score than his predecessor and current finance minister Olaf Scholz who was elected in 2015 with 45.6%. That means he is expected to lose votes to the Greens, thus confirming the ongoing trend since the last European election which has seen the ecological party surge and establish itself in German politics.

“In the German political landscape, the Greens currently act as an anchor of stability: they have a clear profile in terms of content, an undisputed leadership, they have overcome internal political battles and have clearly defined their relationship with all the other parties. With their ability to govern in a wide variety of constellations with CDU, FDP, SPD and Die Linke, the Greens have firmly established themselves as a hinge party in the German coalition landscape,” Arne Jungjohann, political scientist and Greens expert, explained to EURACTIV.

Die Linke is the other stable party despite its candidate in Thuringia, Bodo Ramelow, losing a major political battle. Like the Greens, it has managed to settle its own party internal fights. 

“The fact that Sahra Wagenknecht set herself in the background and gave up the party’s leadership significantly contributes to a more cohesive appearance of the party,” Ulrich Eith said.       

A fragmented political landscape 

That both the Greens and Die Linke are stable while the mainstream CDU, SPD and FDP find themselves deep existential crises suggests that the post-war political landscape has been overturned. 

“The search for a political consensus has long been part of the political culture in Germany and has developed around the two major political parties, the SPD and the CDU. Today, the SPD can no longer be called a “Volkspartei”, and the CDU/CSU is in danger of losing this status as well,” Ulrich Eith stressed. 

“What we are now seeing is the gradual fragmentation of these two large parties, and at a much more advanced stage in the case of the SPD. There are fierce internal fights within the SPD and the CDU, and there is a danger that individuals or small groups will primarily fight for their own interests and less for their own party. In Thuringia, for example, the regional CDU very clearly opposed the Berlin line of the CDU,” he said.

The erosion of Germany’s mainstream parties goes back to the last general election from 2017, Eith explained. “The negotiations about the Jamaican coalition were on the verge of success when the FDP stepped out at the last moment. The grand coalition of CDU/CSU and SPD then came out as an emergency solution,” he said.

The question of whether to join the government or the opposition led to intense debates within the SPD and brought back tensions that emerged when former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder followed the economic line of the UK’s Tony Blair, he continued.

“Entering into a coalition with the CDU meant going back to this pragmatic economic policy line, while remaining in the opposition would have meant a renewal of the party more to the left,” he said.

Multilateralism versus nationalism

The current political uncertainty surrounding the CDU and the course it will take with its relationship with the AfD blurs the traditional German political landscape further.

“The Greens are not in the limelight at the moment, but look with a mixture of scepticism and concern at the turbulence within the CDU. The vacant leadership and the unresolved relationship with the AfD is becoming a burden for the party and thus for the Grand Coalition in Berlin as well,” Arne Jungjohann said.

He pointed out that the next regular CDU party conference, where a new leader and chancellor candidate is to be elected, is not scheduled before the end of 2020. “The CDU cannot afford to let the personnel issues and the relationship with the AfD smoulder for that long. It must clarify the question of its leadership before that,” he said.

Otherwise, there is a danger of a navel-gazing internal politics until the federal elections in 2021, which would be fatal in view of urgent issues such as climate crisis, the future of the EU and the challenges in the Middle East, Jungjohann warned. “The reorganisation of the CDU will also shed light on the prospects for a green-black or black-green alliance at federal level,” he said, referring to a possible coalition between the Conservatives and the Greens.

For Ulricht Eith, the Greens adopted a clear stance towards multilateralism whereas the SPD and the CDU still struggle between international cooperation and national solutions to resolve the new challenges in today’s world. 

“We live in a world in which risks and threats are becoming increasingly tangible. The arrival of refugees in Europe shows that war is not far from Europe. Digitalisation raises existential questions about the future of work: Will my job become obsolete? The climate crisis is becoming more and more concrete,” he said. 

“In Poland and Hungary right-wing populists are advocating national solutions. This is also the position of the AfD. The Greens, on the other hand, stand for the conviction that only international cooperation can offer solutions to the new problems,” the political expert stressed.  

“While both the Greens and the AfD stand clearly opposite to each other, the rift between these two positions runs right across the SPD and CDU/CSU,” Eith said. 

(Edited by Benjamin Fox)

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