What does the last state election before Germany’s Bundestag poll tell us about the future of the country’s politics – and the EU? German historian and sociologist Rainer Zitelmann takes a look.
On Sunday, elections were held in Saxony-Anhalt – one of the five former East German states.
The election had long been the subject of great excitement because, according to some polls, it was set to deliver a neck-and-neck race between the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the right-wing Alternative für Germany (AfD).
And, as things turned out, it was these two parties that emerged as the strongest on election night, but it was the CDU that improved on its performance from the last state elections five years ago by 7.3 per cent, ending up as by far the strongest party in the state, on 37.1 per cent. The party’s strong result is largely due to the popularity of state premier Reiner Haselhoff, a member of the more conservative wing of the party. The AfD took 20.8 per cent of the vote, losing 3.5 per cent compared with 2016.
One of the most remarkable features of this state election is the left-wing Die Linke’s poor performance: this is the party that used to govern the former communist GDR and has, in the intervening years, changed its name twice. It used to be very strong in eastern Germany. In 2011 the party attracted as much as 24 per cent. Support for Die Linke already showed signs of flagging at the last elections in 2016, when the party only scored 16.3 per cent, and it has now lost another third of its voters, ending the day on 11.0 per cent.
The AfD succeeded in winning over many former left-wing voters. The AfD was originally founded as a pro-market, Eurosceptic party and has since evolved into a party that tries to combine nationalist and social issues. In eastern Germany in particular, its campaign propaganda featured “social justice” slogans as it targeted the same groups of voters as Die Linke and the Social Democrats (SPD). 38 per cent of voters in Saxony-Anhalt who say their personal economic situation is in poor shape voted for the AfD – far more than was the case for any other party.
The election was a disaster for the SPD, who currently govern Germany in a coalition with the CDU. The SPD scored 36 per cent of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt back in 1998 and had polled around 20 per cent in elections ever since, before tumbling to 10.6 per cent five years ago. In Sunday’s elections, the SPD came in at just 8.4 per cent.
It was always going to be difficult for the free-market FDP and the Greens in eastern Germany. The FDP is currently enjoying an upswing in support at a national level and, after ten years in which it failed to make it into Saxony-Anhalt’s state parliament, the party has now managed to get back in with 6.4 per cent. The Greens have also been doing very well on a national level in recent months, consistently polling over 20 per cent, but only managed 5.9 per cent in Saxony-Anhalt. According to polls, 75 per cent of voters in Saxony-Anhalt are not particularly interested in “climate change,” which just happens to be the Greens major election issue.
But the Greens also have other problems at the moment – and not just in eastern Germany. Their lead candidate Annalena Baerbock has lost ground in recent polls. Her popularity has taken a hit as a result of revelations that she failed to properly declare supplementary income to the Bundestag. In addition, it turns out that her official CV has been embellished. Many details, including university qualifications and memberships in associations, are either incorrect or entirely fabricated.
The run-up to the national election on September 26 remains exciting. After Sunday’s state vote, it is possible that Saxony-Anhalt will be governed by a coalition of CDU, FDP and SPD, which would also be a conceivable option for Germany as a whole.