A Thuringian cliffhanger

If you’ve followed German elections, or others that work the same way, you’ll be used to the idea that a small number of votes can have a big impact on the result, if they make the difference between whether or not a party clears the 5% threshold for representation. You may even have read me complaining about this in the past.

But the number is rarely this small. Voters in Thuringia can rest content knowing that every vote matters, following yesterday’s state election. (See my preview here.)

Here are the official results. There were 1,108,338 valid votes (Gültige Stimmen) cast; 5% of that is 55,417. The Liberals, or FDP, who had missed out last time, made it with 55,422 – all of five votes to spare. That won them five seats: if they’d had six votes fewer, they would have won nothing.

By comparison, the Greens, who also won five seats, off 5.2% of the vote, were comfortable – they had more than two thousand votes to spare.

And this mattered not just for the Liberals (and Greens). It also made a critical difference to the overall shape of the result. On Friday I explained that “If Thuringia ends up in a position where any two of Left, CDU [centre-right] and AfD [far right] can command a majority, then the SDP [centre-left] and Greens become mathematically irrelevant.”

If the FDP had fallen short of the threshold, that’s exactly what would have happened. The Left, the descendants of the old East German Communists, would have finished with 31 of the 90 seats*; the far-right AfD would have had 24 and the Christian Democrats 22. Two of those three would have been required for a majority.

But instead the FDP took five seats: two each from Left and AfD and one from the CDU. Thanks to those crucial six votes, the combination of AfD and CDU is three seats short of a majority. The temptation of linking up with the far right has been taken away from the CDU, at least for now.

That doesn’t mean forming a new state government will be easy. On the contrary, it will be horribly difficult. The old governing coalition of Left, SPD and Greens has lost its majority, dropping from 46 seats to 43. But there is at least the possibility that the FDP could be induced to join them (an option it had previously ruled out) in a broad centre-and-left coalition.

Overall, the left-right balance barely shifted. AfD’s gains (up 12.8% to 23.4%) were almost balanced by the CDU’s losses (down 11.7% to 21.8%). On the other side, the Greens were down just 0.5%, while the Left (up 2.8% to 31.0%) picked up most of what the SPD (down 4.2% to 8.2%) lost.

Thuringia has thus acquired the unenviable distinction of being the first state to deliver a combined majority to far left and far right, who won 54.4% of the vote between them. (Their previous best was 40.6%, in Saxony-Anhalt in 2016.) It raises uncomfortable memories of the July 1932 national election, where the Nazis and Communists won 51.6% of the vote between them, making the country ungovernable.

But although it pains me to say a kind word for either AfD or the Left, neither of them is in the same league as its forebear. The Left has participated in state governments before, without any sign of lasting damage to the body politic. AfD is not yet at that point, but it may not be far off (although its Thuringian leadership is particularly nasty even by AfD standards).

And of course Thuringia is just one state; small, rural and in the still under-developed east. That doesn’t mean that its voters’ concerns shouldn’t be taken seriously: quite the contrary. The four mainstream parties, who despite their differences are all in fundamentally the same boat, need to pay some very serious attention to what happened on Sunday.

Nonetheless, in most of the country they have less reason to panic.


* There were 91 seats in the outgoing parliament, but one of those was an “overhang” seat, required because the CDU had won so many constituency seats. This time they won exactly the right number, meaning they got no list seats at all but no overhang seats were needed.

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