A bad day for Ms Merkel

No-one else was ever going to produce an equivalent landslide, but Western Australia wasn’t the only state going to the polls last weekend. The German states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate voted on Sunday, and neither was a good result for the Christian Democrats (CDU) or their retiring leader, German prime minister Angela Merkel.

Baden-Württemberg is the larger and more interesting of the two. It’s the only German state with a Greens-led government; Winfried Kretschmann, premier since 2011, has governed since 2016 with the CDU as his junior partner. Not much changed on Sunday, with the same five parties represented in the state parliament and finishing, with one exception, in the same order as last time. But the changes are worth looking at.

The Greens again topped the poll, up 2.3% to 32.6%. Their coalition partner, the CDU, held on to second place but dropped 2.9% to 24.1%. The other three were well back: the Social Democrats (SPD) on 11.0% (down 1.7%), the Liberals (FDP) 10.5% (up 2.2%) and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) the biggest loser on 9.7%, down 5.4%.

Voting is mostly proportional, unlike Australia’s strange systems, so numbers of seats closely track those votes: Greens 58 (up 11), CDU 42 (unchanged), SPD 19 (unchanged), FDP 18 (up six) and AfD 17 (down six).

So the options aren’t really any different. The Greens-CDU combination still has a majority (now 100 out of 154), and that’s again not the Greens’ only option. They could also go for a coalition with the SPD and FPD (a “traffic light” coalition, after the parties’ colors), which would have 95 seats. The alternative of a CDU-SPD-FPD combination, which the CDU tried to promote last time, would also have a majority, with 79 seats.

Now look at Rhineland-Palatinate. It already had a traffic-light coalition, led by the SPD, which topped the poll last time with 36.2% of the vote and 39 of the 101 seats. Its vote held almost constant, dropping just 0.5%. Again the Greens gained, up 4.0% to 9.3%, and the CDU (down 4.1% to 27.7%) and AfD (down 4.3% to 8.3%) both lost ground. The FDP fell back just slightly, down 0.7% to 5.5%, and a sixth party, the Free Voters (mostly centrist), entered the parliament with 5.4% (up 3.2%).

The governing coalition increased its seat tally to 55 and will presumably remain in office. The only plausible alternatives for a majority would be either bringing in the Free Voters instead of the Liberals, or else a grand coalition between the SPD and CDU – which governs at federal level, apparently without doing either of them much good.

The common themes in both states seem to be, firstly, the continued decline of both major parties, and secondly, the rise of the Greens, mirrored by the fall of AfD.

This time the CDU had the worse of it, but the trend for it and the SPD has been downward for some time. Once upon a time they would routinely get 90% of the vote between them in elections like this; as recently as 2006 it was almost 70% in Baden-Württemberg and almost 80% in Rhineland-Palatinate. On Sunday those numbers were down to 35.1% and 63.4%.

But if you consider the centre-left as a whole, both SPD and Greens, it’s not doing too badly. Baden-Württemberg may be a special case, but across the country the Greens have been on a roll, with their gains consistently outweighing the SPD’s losses. At a national level, polls show them close together with around 35% of the vote between them, ahead of the CDU’s 31% or thereabouts.

The CDU has less consolation, although its preferred coalition partner, the FDP, has also been doing well. In 2017 it failed to entice the Greens and FDP into government with it, but it may hope to do better this year. It may also be that the CDU and Greens will have a majority between them and will be able to govern together federally as they do in Baden-Württemberg.

But if the CDU continues to decline, then other possibilities open up. A traffic-light coalition already governs in Rhineland-Palatinate and is now being talked of as an option in Baden-Württemberg; could it perhaps happen federally? On current polling it would still be short of a majority, and when the numbers were there for it in 2005 the Liberals refused to come to the party, laying up some major problems for the future. But perhaps this time they may see things differently.

Finally, a reminder that both of these states are in the west of the country, where voting patterns can be very different from the east. The sharp drop in AfD’s vote, plus the continued failure of its far-left counterpart, the Left, to break into either state parliament (it managed 3.6% in Baden-Württemberg and 2.5% in Rhineland-Palatinate), send a comforting message about successful resistance to extremism. But things are not so rosy in the east.

The next state to vote (scheduled for 6 June) will be the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, where last time AfD and the Left won 40 of the 87 seats between them, forcing CDU, SPD and Greens to combine to keep them out. With the federal election to come less than four months later, that too will be closely watched.


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