Two German states, Brandenburg and Saxony, go to the polls on Sunday. Both states are in the east of the country – as is a third, Thuringia, that will vote in two months time – and both are subject to the now-familiar round of speculation about the rise of the far right.
So a quick primer first on German state elections in general. There are 16 states; they all hold elections every five years (except Bremen, which has four-year terms), and they all vote by proportional representation, using the same system as for German federal elections, sometimes with minor variations.
The same six parties as are represented in federal parliament are generally competitive for state elections as well: the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU; known as the CSU in Bavaria), the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), the Greens, the far-left Left party, and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
With a five per cent threshold for representation, not every party wins seats in every state, but most of them do most of the time. So putting together a majority coalition is often difficult, and the range of possible combinations is huge.
The current 16 governments embrace ten different party combinations. If you differentiate according to which party leads the government, not just which parties compose it, that number increases to 13: seven governments in six different combinations are led by the CDU/CSU; another seven, in five different combinations, by the SPD, and one each by the Greens and the Left.
You can see them all in glorious detail on the relevant German Wikipedia page.
But one thing stands out. Although just about every plausible coalition seems to have been tried somewhere, none of them include AfD. The far right has been kept out of power in every state. So far, at least, Germany’s politicians have taken to heart the lessons of the 1930s.
With that background, let’s look at Brandenburg and Saxony. Brandenburg is currently governed by a coalition of the SPD and the Left, in office since 2009. In 2014 those two parties won 50.5% of the vote and 47 of the 88 seats between them. In the latest polls, however, they are down about 15%, with the SPD around 20% and the Left around 15%.
Saxony’s government is a grand coalition, like the federal government, of CDU and SPD, but it’s recorded a similar drop of support. In 2014 they had 51.8% of the vote and 77 of the 126 seats in aggregate; that’s now down below 40% (CDU just under 30%, SPD just under 10%).
So neither state government looks in good shape. If they are going to stay in office, they will both be looking for new partners.
But there are partners available – in fact, an obvious choice is the same in each case. Bringing in the Greens would most probably yield a majority in both states, and both have precedents. SPD-Left-Greens in Brandenburg would mirror the current governments of Berlin and Bremen, while CDU-SPD-Greens in Saxony would match the government of neighboring Saxony-Anhalt.
Although the SPD is in poor shape across the country, this does not seem to reflect any major ideological shift: a large part of its vote has simply migrated to the Greens, which are now (in Germany as in some other countries) bidding to become the main centre-left force.
Nor are the Greens the only option. The FDP, which fell below the threshold in both states last time, may return in either or both, and would also be a potential coalition partner. And more exotic combinations are also possible.
What about the chance of the far right entering government? The only party that would even fleetingly consider co-operating with AfD is the CDU, and in Brandenburg such a combination is still polling well short of a majority. In Saxony, however, they look like winning a majority between them, raising it as a theoretical possibility.
And if AfD had remained the right-wing Eurosceptic but not extremist party that it started out as, such an outcome would not be surprising. But in its current shape, AfD has shifted much to far to the right for that to be considered if there are other options available – as, in this case, it appears there are.
This is AfD’s strongest part of the country: it may hit 20% in Brandenburg and 25% in Saxony, but it is still only polling at around 15% nationwide (it scored 12.6% at the last federal election). Keeping a party of that size quarantined from power is sometimes awkward, but it is eminently possible.
The experience of the 1930s raises another worry, in the shape of the combined extremist vote. The destruction of German democracy came when the Nazis and Communists won a parliamentary majority between them and made the country ungovernable, leading to first temporary and then permanent dictatorship.
The Left and AfD are still some way short of that mark, even at state level: around 35% in Brandenburg and 40% in Saxony. But more importantly, although there are some similarities in their worldviews, there is no sign that they would co-operate. On the contrary, the Left, which leads the government in Thuringia and participates in three other states (including Brandenburg), seems capable of behaving like a respectable coalition partner.
It’s by no means impossible that AfD will one day reach that position as well. But not this year.