Dec 072014

On Friday, the state parliament at Erfurt voted in Bodo Ramelow as Minister-President of Thuringia. He is the first member of the Left party to hold such an office, backed by the first ‘red-red-green’ (Left/SPD/Greens) coalition ever. 25 years after the fall of the wall, that is still a highly controversial constellation. Ramelow has been trying to diffuse the issue for months, and kicked off his reign with an apology to the victims of the former socialist state party SED, the pre-predecessor of the Left. His election also marks the end of a 24-year-spell during which the state’s Christian Democrats held the top executive job in this state.

The real significance, of course, lies beyond the woods of Thuringia. Taking over the office of the Minister-President is perhaps the most important step in the long game of normalising the Left that began in the mid-1990s, when the PDS (the predecessor of the Left) tolerated a red-green minority government in Saxony-Anhalt. Normalising red-red-green coalitions, on the other hand, is even trickier business. The Greens merged in the 1990s with what remained of  the East German dissident movement, and this legacy makes any co-operation with the heirs of the former oppressors highly unpleasant. The SPD, on the other hand, has two swallow the fact that at least in Thuringia, they are no longer the strongest force within the left camp. Moreover, the SED was the result of a forced merger between the East German SPD and the east German communist partner, and the final ingredient in today’s Left was a group of SPD dissidents who broke away from the SPD ten years ago. That is a lot of shared history overshadowing the present.

From the SPD’s point of view, however, there is clearly a ray of sunshine to this story: The SPD is now part of 14 (out of 16) state governments and has 9 Minister-Presidents amongst their number, four more than the Christian Democrats. That certainly makes governing as Merkel’s junior partner in Berlin a little more bearable.

14874355380 3d78560965 m bodo ramelow Germany gets their first Minister President of the LeftPhoto by DIE LINKE. Thüringen cc Germany gets their first Minister President of the Left

Jan 192014

CDU-Greens Coalition: No Rush Please, We’re Hessian

A mere four months after the Hessian state election, the new CDU-Greens (aka black-green) coalition has duly confirmed Volker Bouffier as Minister President after one tiny glitch (more on that below). While the guys in Hesse took their time, everyone is now very excited, because a successful CDU-Greens coalition would open up a whole host of possibilities beyond the entrenched 2+(2+1) pattern of party competition in Germany.

landtag wiesbaden The CDU Greens Coalition in Hesse: Why It Matters
Home of the CDU-Greens Coalition: Hessischer Landtag Wiesbadenmuckster / / CC BY-NC-SA

It is not, however, exactly a first: From 2008 to 2010, the city state of Hamburg was governed by a black-green coalition, and from 2009, an even more unlikely ‘Jamaica’ (black-green-yellow, i.e. CDU/Green/FDP) coalition governed in the Saarland before it collapsed in 2011. The media’s official excuse for getting overexcited is that Hesse is the first ‘Flächenland’ (‘area state’, i.e. not a city state) where the new coalition format is tested. But the real reason is that Hesse is at the same time the most likely and the most unlikely place for such an experiment.

Why is Hesse Special?

Hesse holds a special place in the heart of every red-blooded German Politics anorak because it is unusual. Although it has a huge rural core and its traditional industries have been in decline for a very long time, it was dominated by the Social democrats for decades. Back in the 1980s, it became the test bed for red-green coalitions when a young Joschka Fischer was sworn in as the first green minister in Germany, wearing his trademark trainers (now kept in a museum).

Then, the tide turned. In 1999, Roland Koch won the election for the CDU and became Minister President, an office he held until he resigned in 2010 in a surprise move to take a job in the industry. Koch survived a major donation scandal as well as various minor scandals, a lost election (after which he hung on as head of a minority cabinet) and an endless string of controversies over his rather aggressive and often (right-wing) populist approach to politics. During his reign, Hesse’s party system became even more polarised and segmented than it had been in the past. And CDU-led government in Hesse seemed all but inevitable.

What’s in a Bunch of Names?

Back in 2008, Koch, proud bearer of a proper German name (which translates as ‘cook’), authorised a series of posters highlighting the fact that two of the opposition parties were indeed led by folks with very foreign-sounding names (Al-Wazir of the Greens and Ypsilanti of the SPD), while the third opposition party (led by someone with a less suspicious name) was labelled as “Communist”. His attitude left a lot of bad blood. Nonetheless, his successor (hint: French-sounding name), though a long-term ally of Koch and widely considered a law & order politician, was able to embark on a series of talks with all political parties after the election, which had given none of the usual proto-coalitions an outright majority.

More importantly, he convinced Al-Wazir, his old political enemy from the days when Bouffier was known (or admired) as the ‘Black Sheriff’ of Hessian Home Affairs, to become his deputy. During the talks, Bouffier emerged as an unexpectedly shrewd political operator who presented his party – in Hesse, the other Länder and perhaps even in Berlin – with a new option beyond the unloved Great Coalition and the outdated CDU/FDP formats. If a CDU-Greens coalition can work in Hesse, it might work just everywhere.

So what was the glitch? In the first ballot, some MPs were given ballot papers listing the candidate’s name as ‘Max Mustermann’ (Sam Specimen), a popular placeholder for document templates. Allegedly, at least one person voted for this familiar character. Consequently, a second ballot had to be held. The current rapprochement not withstanding, names still seem to be a bit of a problem in Hesse.

Sep 012013

The Polls

majorparties week 35 300x225 German Bundestag Election: Six New Polls, Little Change

Support for the Major German Parties, Estimates and Predictions (Week 35, 2013)

Exactly three weeks before the 18th Bundestag election, it’s time for another look at the polls. This weekend brings six new entries: One late result from week 33 that was only published a week ago, three polls from week 34, and two that were conducted this week, with fieldwork done from Monday/Tuesday to Wednesday. For all purposes and intents, that means that any possible fallout from the Western (non-)intervention in Syria will not be reflected in the polls.

Raw Figures, Estimates and Predictions

As always, there is a good deal of variation in the published figures. The range for Merkel’s Christian Democratcs, for example, is 41 to 46 per cent. But for what it is worth, the model is ever more confident about the outcome of the election: The estimated probability of victory for the governing coalition is now 85 per cent (up from 78 per cent) even if one ignores tactical voting by CDU supporters. If this “loan vote” is factored in, the probability of a coalition victory is 94 per cent (up from 90). Unsurprisingly, the probability of a Red-Green majority is still estimated as zero.

minorparties week 33 300x225 German Bundestag Election: Six New Polls, Little Change

Support for the Minor German Parties, Estimates and Predictions (Week 35, 2013)

The  one remarkable change is the modest slump in support for the Greens, which have lost about two points over the last four weeks and are now well below their peak support of about 15 per cent in March. The slow upward trend of the Liberals is unbroken, and the Left is safely above the electoral threshold. Support for the two major parties is perfectly stable.

Since my interest here is (mostly) academic, I also began comparing past predictions (from week 33) with current estimates. The differences are small, but there is one interesting exception: Support for the Greens is now estimated to be 0.8 points lower than it should have been, given the information that was available two weeks ago. So it would seem that their support is indeed suffering from some random shock.

The Outlook

Today is the day of the televised debate between Steinbrück and Merkel (in Germany, known as “the Duel”). While we are professionally obliged to watch it, I don’t think that it will make much of a difference. Both candidates are extremely well known knowns. I also don’t think that Syria will matter for this campaign.

Have I just shot myself in the foot? Probably. Come back next week for the latest batch of surveys.

Aug 242013

The State of Play, Four Weeks Before the Election

Last week’s post on Merkel’s very good chances to win a third term created a bit of a stir. This week, I’m back with nine new polls (conducted between August 6 and August 19 by six different companies), which all point into the same direction.

What the Pollster Saw

On average, polls are in the field for five days (with a standard deviation of three days), so I continue to anchor each poll to a specific week in the calendar. Along with the raw data, the graphs show estimates for the true support for each party over 32 weeks, starting from Monday, the 31st of December. Eight of the new polls cover week 31 and week 32, while one is a late addition to estimate for week 30.

majorparties week 33 300x225 Nine New Polls Say Merkel Will Still Be Chancellor in October

Estimated/predicted Support for Major German Parties (2013 election). Click for Larger Image.


Support for Merkel’s Christian Democrats is between 39 and 47 per cent. The model, which accounts for previous levels of party support and variation across pollsters, puts them at 41 per cent. Findings for the major opposition party, the Social Democrats, are less variable at 22 to 25 per cent. The model places them at the upper limit of these current polls.

Results for the Greens are even more unanimous (12-13.5 per cent). The model agrees, confirming that their support has come down a tick or two over the last weeks.

The same cannot be said for the Left, which is almost static at seven per cent (polls: 6-8.1). That is well below their 2009 result, but also well above the electoral threshold of five per cent.

Finally, for the Liberals, Merkel’s coalition partner, things have improved ever so slightly. While the polls vary from three to seven per cent, the Liberals’ true level of support is currently estimated at 5.2 per cent. More importantly, after months of continuous near-death experiences, there seems to be an upward trend.

minorparties week 33 300x225 Nine New Polls Say Merkel Will Still Be Chancellor in October

Estimated/predicted Support for Smaller German Parties (2013 election). Click for Larger Image.


What Does That Mean for September 22 and Beyond?

This is my first shot at pooling the pre-election polls, so all predictions should be taken with a very generous pinch of salt. The model is possibly misspecified and rests on an number of questionable assumptions. The most obviously problematic amongst these is that polls are, on average, unbiased over the whole January-September timeframe. But hey, this is a blog, so let’s ignore this (and all other) problems for a second and believe that the trend-lines and credible intervals for the next four weeks are indeed credible.

Once we make this leap of faith, the probability of a return to a Red-Green coalition is approximately zero. Amongst 10000 simulations of week 38/39 (the election is on a Sunday), there is not a single one that gives a parliamentary majority to this prospective coalition.

The FDP, on the other hand, makes it past the electoral threshold in 83 per cent of my simulations, and in 78 per cent, there is a parliamentary majority for the present coalition. The true probability will be higher, as some CDU supporters will vote strategically for the FDP to help them across the threshold. If we assume that this behaviour is virtually guaranteed to succeed (it would be enough if about one in 40 CDU would cast a “loan vote”), the probability of a majority for the present coalition goes up to 90 per cent.

Put differently, the probability of a Red-Red-Green coalition (SPD, Left, Greens) is between 22 per cent (no loan votes for FDP) and 10 per cent (loan vote strategy works perfectly). But even if there was a majority for the three opposition parties, a coalition (or rather a toleration arrangement with the Left) would be highly unlikely (say p=0.1), making a Grand Coalition led by the CDU the default option. That again means that the probability of any government not being headed by the present chancellor is between one and two per cent (down from four per cent last week).

What About the Smaller Parties (AfD, Pirates, etc.)

For several months, most pollsters did not publish separate results for smaller parties such as the eurosceptic AfD or the internet-centric Pirates. Some have resumed giving itemized counts for “other” parties, and it currently seems safe to assume that neither will enter parliament. If they did, the Pirates would probably take away votes from the left parties, whereas the AfD would most likely weaken the two major parties. In either case, a Grand Coalition would become more likely.

What Everyone Else Thinks

The July issue of PS has two short pieces on forecasting models for the September election. Both pick Merkel as winner. So do Bundewahltrend (average over the six most recent polls), pollytix (weighted average of 15 most recent polls), and wahlistik (a poll aggregator run for the Zeit weekly). Las weekend, politicians in both major parties began floating the idea of a Grand Coalition, but given the latest polls, four more years of centre-right government seems to be the most likely option by far.

Stay Tuned

This post comes with lots of health warnings attached. In the past, forecasts have failed, faces have turned red, majorities have collapsed well before election day. I’ll be back once I have collected the next batch of polls.

Jun 212012

Yesterday, the BBC’s man in Berlin discovered that there are constitutional limits to Merkel’s ability to somehow save the Euro. Following a constitutional amendment in the 1990s, article 23 of the Basic Law stipulates that any further transfers of sovereignty to the EU require absolute two-thirds majorities in both the Bundestag and the Federal Council (which represents the Länder). That is a tough call. Her Majesty’s government may talk about red lines, Germany has them.

Just yesterday, the Federal Constitutional Court strengthened the role of parliament in a ruling on the decision through which the temporary bailout fund EFSF had been implemented last year. While this does not affect the EFSF’s status, it further increased the pressure on the government to liaise with parliament, the states, and the opposition parties.

Today, it briefly looked like the saga of saving the Euro could go ahead as far as Germany is concerned: Merkel’s coalition, the Social Democrats and the Greens declared that they had reached an agreement on the fiscal pact and the permanent ESF. That seemed to leave only the issue of securing a super-majority in the Federal Council, a formidable task in itself as the Länder are concerned about further restrictions on their already very limited spending powers.

Then, things got messy: the Left and a dissident MP declared that they would challenge the two treaties in the Federal Constitutional Court. The court in turn asked the Federal President not to sign the ratification bills into law for the time being so that they would have enough time to deliberate (once the treaties are ratified, a ruling by the FCC would be quite pointless). While this is not totally uncommon, the court held a press conference to make the public aware of the issue. It does not get much more uncommon in Germany. The president, who allegedly had been lobbied by the government to ratify the treaties before July was then forced to publicly declare that he would heed that request.

Like the content and the context of the bailout packages, all this is very unusual. Today’s events do not yet a constitute a constitutional crisis. But they do provide even more evidence  that we are living in very interesting times.

 Germany and the European Crisis: Confusion and Delay
Mar 142012

Much to everybody’s surprise, the minority government in North Rhine-Westphalia collapsed today. Minority governments are a rarity in Germany. The federal constitution, reflecting Germany’s inter-war experience of unstable governments and intense political strife, practically rules them out. Constitutional details at the state level differ but the general assumption is that the government needs the reliable support of a majority of MPs. The increasing fragmentation of the German party system, however, plays havoc with these constitutional patterns.

In 2010, the land election brought about political deadlock in NRW, a state that has roughly the size, population, and GDP of the Netherlands. Neither of the two major parties (SPD and CDU) could form a majority government without at least two of the three minor parties (the Greens, the FDP (liberals), and the Left). Lengthy negotiations to form a Grand coalition or various three party coalitions (CDU/FDP/Greens, SPD/Greens/Left, SPD/Greens/FDP) failed, leading to the eventual constitution of a red-green minority government that proved remarkably stable.

Its unexpected downfall resulted from a legal twist. Today, the state parliament voted on the budget in a second reading. During this session, votes were scheduled for every single chapter of the whole budget. Both FDP and the Left were set to vote against the government, expecting that they could extract concessions from the government before the third and final reading in two weeks time. But yesterday, constitutional lawyers working for the state parliament informed the parties that due to its specific structure, a vote against any chapter would terminate the budgetary process without a third reading. The government, on the other hand, had declared that it could not operate without a constitutional budget and would seek to dissolve parliament.

This left the FDP and the Left with the choice to lose face or risk the loss of parliamentary representation, as they are not doing well in the polls. This afternoon, they chose the latter. Elections will be held in May.

At the moment, we do not know who asked for the legal opinion, whether the advice was controversial, and why the budget was structured in such a peculiar way. The document has been leaked to the press, but has not been published in full.

A telephone poll by Infratest dimap predicts a majority for a new red-green coalition, with the FDP truly and well below the five percent threshold and results for the Left and the Pirate party to close to call. But this is, of course, just the beginning of the campaign.

 Snap Election in North Rhine Westphalia
Feb 182012
The reviewer thinks that “the piece is quite long for a research note on a regional election.” I’m afraid s/he is right, as it took me an unduly long time to complete it. But (and this is a very big but) the reviewer nonetheless recommends publication, and (even better the editor does not think that a reduction in size will be necessary.  Rejoice! So, just under one year after the fact, here is my analysis of the 2011 Land election in Rhineland-Palatinate

The 2011 election in Rhineland-Palatinate was a political earthquake: Following a string of political scandals, the SPD lost almost ten percentage points of their support, while the CDU could hardly improve on their disastrous 2006 result. The FDP is no longer represented in the state parliament. The Greens more than tripled their last result, allowing them to enter a coalition with the SPD for the first time.

Analyses at the municipal level show that the party improved most in their urban strongholds while still showing a (relatively) weak performance in rural areas. This will make it difficult to sustain the momentum of their victory. Moreover, the SPD is battered and bruised and needs to select a new leader, but veteran minister president Kurt Beck shows no inclination to step down. This does not bode well for a coalition that needs to organise the state’s fiscal consolidation and structural transformation.

 There is a PDF, too.

ms 211x300 Sports Cars, Sleaze and Gamma Rays: Rhineland Palatinate Elects Its FirstRed Green Government

PDF version of this paper




Jan 142012

I’m currently working on an analysis of the latest state election in Rhineland-Palatinate using aggregate data alone, i.e. electoral returns and structural information, which is available at the level of the state’s roughly 2300 municipalities. The state’s Green party (historically very weak) has roughly tripled their share of the vote since the last election in 2006, and I want to know were all these additional votes come from. And yes, I’m treading very careful around the very large potential ecological fallacy that lurks at the centre of my analysis, regressing Green gains on factors such as tax receipts and distance from next university town, but never claiming that the rich or the students or both turned to the Greens.

One common problem with this type of analysis is that not all municipalities are created equal. There is a surprisingly large number of flyspeck villages with only a few dozen voters on, whereas the state’s capital boasts more than 140,000 registered voters. Most places are somewhere in between. Having many small municipalities in the regression feels wrong for at least two reasons. First, small-scale changes of political preferences in tiny electorates will result in relatively large percentage changes. Second, the behaviour of a relatively large number of voters who happen to live in a small number of relatively large municipalities will be grossly underrepresented, i.e. the countryside will drive the results.

My PhD supervisor, who did a lot of this stuff in his time, used to weigh municipalities by the size of their electorates to deal with these problems. But this would lead to pretty extreme weights in my case. Moreover, while voters bring about electoral results, I really don’t want to introduce claims about individual behaviour through the back door.

My next idea was to weigh municipalities by the square root of the size their electorates. Why? In a sense, the observed behaviour is like a sample from the underlying distribution of preferences, and the reliability of this estimate is proportional to the square root of the number of people in a given community. But even taking the square root left me with weights that were quite extreme, and the concern regarding the level of analysis still applied.

Then I realised that instead of weighing by size, I could simply include the size of the electorate as an additional independent variable to correct for potential bias. But this still left me exposed to the danger of extreme outliers (think small, poor, rural communities where the number of Green voters goes up from one to four, a whopping 300 per cent increase) playing havoc with my analysis. So I began reading up on robust regression and its various implementations in Stata.Line with outliers Robust Regression of Aggregate Data in Stata

The basic idea of robust regression is that real data are more likely than not a mixture of (at least) two mechanisms: the “true model” whose coefficients we want to estimate one the one hand, and some other process(es) that contaminate the data on the other. If these contaminating data points are far away from the multivariate mean of the x-Variables (outliers) and deviate substantially from the true regression line, they will bias the estimates.

Robust regression estimators are able to deal with a high degree of contamination, i.e. they can recover the true parameters even if there are many outliers amongst the data points. The downside is that the older generation of robust estimators also have a low efficiency (the estimates are unbiased but have a much higher variance than regular OLS-estimates).

A number of newer (post-1980) estimators, however, are less affected by this problem. One particular promising approach is the MM estimator, that has been implemented in Stata ados by Veradi/Croux (MMregress) and by Ben Jann (robreg mm). Jann’s ado seems to be faster and plays nicely with his esttab/estout package, so I went with that.

The MM estimator works basically by identifying outliers and weighing them down, so it amounts to a particularly sophisticated case of weighted least squares. Using the defaults, MM claims to have 85 per cent of the efficiency of OLS while being able to deal with up to 50 per cent contamination. As you can see in the table, the MM estimates deviate somewhat from their OLS counterparts. The difference is most pronounced for the effect of tax receipts (hekst).

robreg mm has an option to store the optimal weights. I ran OLS again using these weights (column 3), thereby recovering the MM estimates and demonstrating that MM is really just weighted least squares (standard errors (which are not very relevant here) differ, because robreg uses the robust variance estimator). This is fascinating stuff, and I’m looking forward to a forthcoming book by Jann and Veradi on robust regression in Stata (to be published by Stata Press in 2012).

                     OLS              MM            WLS

greenpct2006        0.193***        0.329***        0.329***
                 (0.0349)        (0.0592)        (0.0278)

hekst               0.311***        0.634***        0.634***
                 (0.0894)         (0.124)        (0.0688)

senioren          -0.0744***       -0.100***       -0.100***
                 (0.0131)        (0.0149)       (0.00994)

kregvoters11      -0.0125        -0.00844        -0.00844
                 (0.0146)       (0.00669)       (0.00982)

kbevdichte         -0.433        -0.00750        -0.00750
                  (0.464)         (0.330)         (0.326)

uni                 1.258           0.816           0.816
                  (1.695)         (0.765)         (1.137)

lnunidist          -0.418**        -0.372**        -0.372***
                  (0.127)         (0.113)        (0.0918)

_cons               8.232***        7.078***        7.078***
                  (0.627)         (0.663)         (0.461)
 Robust Regression of Aggregate Data in Stata
Mar 142011

As predicted yesterday, the nuclear disaster in Japan is having a profound impact on something as trivial as three state election campaigns in Germany, more than 9000 kilometres away. Roughly 70 per cent of the population believe that an incident on the scale of the Japanese catastrophe could happen in Germany, too. The Federal Government has declared a three-month “moratorium” on its controversial decision to extend the life-span of German nuclear plants, what ever that means. Meanwhile, they want to reconsider their position on the issue and to re-assess the status of the German plants. It makes you wonder if/why they have not assessed those plants in the first place.

At least the oldest and least secure plants could indeed have reached the end of their life-span. If and when they would be switched off, that would be a U-turn for the government. This looks like a liberal-conservative panic attack.

 Agenda Set, Japanese Style II
Mar 122011
 Agenda Setting, Japanese Style

Image via Wikipedia

It’s amazing: Just 36 hours after the horrible earth quake in Japan, 60000 people are demonstrating in Swabia – against nuclear energy. While we do not know whether the Japanese plants are actually in meltdown, for the German liberal-conservative coalition, this is certainly the Most Credible Accident.

One of the governments most controversial decisions so far was to amend the red-green phase-out law so that the German nuclear plants can remain operative much longer than planned under the original law. This upset many people, as acceptance for nuclear energy in Germany is low. And so the issue was already salient for the ongoing state-election campaigns in Baden-Württemberg, Rheinland-Pfalz and Sachsen-Anhalt long before yesterday’s tragedy, particularly in Baden-Württemberg, which has four operational nuclear power plants.

Now, the Greens and the SPD are having a field day. Or so it would seem: The governments semi-official line is that it would be inconsiderate to discuss domestic matters in the face of the Japanese tragedy, and the SPD is playing along for today. But it’s difficult to imagine that the left parties will not play the issue over the next two weeks – the scale of the nuclear threat is just too big.

And the media are certainly on the job. The main public broadcaster ARD – roughly equivalent to BBC One – just changed its schedule and dropped one of its insufferable shows for the over 60s in favour of a documentary on the Chernobyl disaster. Showing something that is actually relevant one a Saturday night is an almost unprecedented move for them. And even if no one was trying to set the agenda, having a power plant in or near meltdown will certainly prime voters.

 Agenda Setting, Japanese Style