Hessians follow the pattern

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
Greens +8.9 +8.7
Liberals (FDP) +1.8 +2.5
Left +1.1 +1.1

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.



4 thoughts on “Hessians follow the pattern

  1. One big difference between Bavaria and Hesse is that turnout is significantly down – meaning the AfD votes came from the mainstream parties (presumably the Union and, to a lesser degree, the SPD). I haven’t seen one for Hesse, but one of the polling firms did a map comparing votes at this election and the last for both the Bavarian and most recent Federal elections, which showed in both cases that the AfD drew a lot of votes from hitherto non-voters; this one is different.


    1. Thanks Pyrmonter – that is interesting, isn’t it? Turnout in Hesse is down almost 6 points, whereas in Bavaria it was up nearly 9 points. Which suggests that variations in turnout might act more as statistical noise than as real factors in results – but maybe there’s something else going on there as well.


  2. 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.

    Ahem, didn’t I say precisely this ages ago? And overnight Merkel has announced her “retirement”, kinda, eventually. I think my thoughts, which I always believed were self-evident, are manifesting if not soon enough (2021! we’ll see if she lasts that long). Quite lacking in vision and it is that which stands naked now. Of course it is not at all apparent if there is anyone to fill this aching vacuum, both in German politics or for the EU.
    Anyway, it is for these reasons that I would hope for the Greens/SPD/FDP combo because it isn’t solely Merkel but the CSU and CDU which is the problem. The Jamaica combo would be dominated by them. Surely seeing the election of Bolsonaro in Brazi, or even Salvini in Italy are warnings that doing the same old thing is not good enough.

    Merkel and the CSU/CDU remind me of the interminable Menzies government in post-war Australia. It kind of seemed “stable and prosperous” at the time but in retrospect it really was just stasis. As then, as now in Germany: it’s time (for real change).


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