Thuringia goes to the polls on Saturday. In case you’re not sure where Thuringia is, it’s right in the middle of Germany; it’s the westernmost of the six states that were formerly part of East Germany.
This is the fourth and last state election in Germany for the year. The city-state of Bremen in the north-west voted in May and re-elected its Social Democrat (SPD) government, although it lost seats and was forced to take in the far-left Left party as a second coalition partner, in addition to the Greens.
Brandenburg and Saxony – both, like Thuringia, in the east of the country – voted on the same day two months ago. (Read my preview here, which also has some general explanation of German politics.) Both states saw losses for the SPD and its centre-right rival, the Christian Democrats (CDU), and big gains for the Greens and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
But although AfD did well, and there was much concern in the media about its progress, it wasn’t close to forcing its way into government in either state.
In Brandenburg the governing coalition of SPD and Left lost its majority, forcing the SPD to turn to the Greens: either as an addition to the government, or by replacing the Left with both Greens and CDU. Negotiations are still continuing as to which of those options will be taken.
In Saxony, the outgoing government was a coalition of CDU and SPD. It too lost its majority, but also had the option of taking in the Greens – forming a “Kenya coalition“, so called since the parties’ colors (black-red-green) match those of the Kenyan flag.
Superficially, Thuringia looks to be in a similar situation. AfD is travelling about as well in the polls there (low to mid-20s) as it did in Brandenburg (23.5%) and Saxony (27.5%). Surely it should be just as straightforward to keep it out of government?
But there’s a big difference. In Thuringia the Left is much stronger. In Brandenburg it polled only 10.7% (down 7.9%); in Saxony it was 10.4% (down 8.5%). The polls in Thuringia, however, show it holding its own, and from a much higher base. In 2015 it won 28.2% of the vote, and it may well go close to that again.
That would mean that the Left and AfD would probably win a majority of the seats between them. But even that of itself is not an insuperable problem – there is no prospect of them co-operating, even in the negative way that the Nazis and Communists did in 1932.
What makes Thuringia so difficult is the associated weakness of the Social Democrats and Greens. In 2014 they had only 18.1% of the vote between them, and they’re unlikely to improve much (if at all) on that. Left, SPD and Greens jointly now have the narrowest of majorities – 46 of the 91 seats – and govern together. If they lose that majority, it’s not at all clear what could replace it.
If Thuringia ends up in a position where any two of Left, CDU and AfD can command a majority, then the SDP and Greens become mathematically irrelevant. It’s hard to imagine either of the others dealing with AfD and its openly racist leader Björn Höcke. But it’s no less difficult to imagine the Christian Democrats going into coalition with the former Communists of the Left.
It might not arise. If the Liberals, who polled only 2.5% last time but have improved in the polls, manage to crack the 5% threshold (they just missed out in both Brandenburg and Saxony), and if the Greens and SPD do a bit better than currently expected, it’s possible that a ramshackle coalition of CDU, SPD, Greens and Liberals would just have a majority.
But if not, then minority government looks likely, with uncharted waters ahead.