A fortnight ago, when a state election in Bavaria recorded dramatic swings in voting behavior, most reports included a qualifying line to the effect that Bavaria is a bit of an odd place.
And so it is; but although it’s not a typical German state, it looks as if there’s nothing very distinctive about the way its voters are moving. We can tell from looking at the election held yesterday in the state of Hesse (official results here).
In fact, the similarity of the swings is so striking that it’s worth showing them in a table:
|Bavaria (%)||Hesse (%)|
|Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU)||-10.4||-11.3|
|Social Democrats (SPD)||-9.7||-10.9|
|Alternative for Germany (AfD)||+10.2||+9.0|
Clearly, whatever is happening in Germany is not confined to one state.
The outcome looks different, of course, because Hesse starts at a different point. While the CSU previously had a majority in Bavaria in its own right, in Hesse the CDU has governed in coalition with the Greens. Since Greens gains almost balanced CDU losses, they appear to have retained their joint majority, but only just: previously they had 61 seats out of 110 (47 CDU and 14 Greens); now it will be 69 out of 137 (40 and 29).*
Even with only a one-seat majority, it seems likely that the state government will continue in office, since its opponents are such a diverse bunch. The SPD are sitting just 96 votes behind the Greens, for the same number of seats; the far-right AfD will have 19 seats, the FDP 11 and the Left nine.
I can’t recall ever seeing this happen before, but it means that three possible coalitions would each have a one-seat majority: CDU+Greens, CDU+SPD, and Greens+SPD+FDP.
The second of those certainly won’t happen. Everyone says it’s the Social Democrats’ participation in a grand coalition at federal level that is producing the collapse in their support, so there’s no way they’ll sign up for one in Hesse. A Greens/SPD/FDP combination – a “traffic light” coalition – would make more sense, but it means getting the Greens and Liberals to work together, as they failed to do after last year’s federal election.
That’s also the problem with the one option that would have a more solid majority, of bringing the FDP into the existing government to create a “Jamaica” coalition (from their colors, black, green and yellow).
But who governs in Hesse is probably less important than what the result means for the federal government. On the centre-right, it will give ammunition to those who say that the CDU’s problem is the tired leadership of Angela Merkel, not just her quarrels with the Bavarian CSU.
Even more seriously, it will have the centre-left thinking that it may be time to leave the grand coalition – and unless the FDP has a change of heart, that would leave Merkel no alternative to a fresh election, in which voters would almost certainly take out their anger on both CDU and SPD. Just as they have in both Hesse and Bavaria.
That’s the last German state election for the year, so the politicians will have time to collect their thoughts over winter. But there are another five due next year – in Hamburg, Bremen, Saxony, Brandenburg and Thuringia – so if something hasn’t been done to appease the voters by then, there will probably be more trouble in store.
* The increase in the total number of seats comes because of the German mixture of constituency seats and list seats; the CDU won more constituency seats than the total number of seats it was entitled to, so extra list seats (called “overhang” seats) had to be added for the other parties to preserve proportionality.