A mere three hours after the event, it’s obviously too early to write something coherent about the three state elections that were held in Germany today. So let’s try it anyway:
For the time being, Germany has a viable Radical Right Populist Party. A result of ~24% in the Eastern state of Sachsen-Anhalt is a bit of a shock, but no huge surprise. The real clincher are the (low) double digit figures in the Western states of Rheinland-Pfalz and Baden-Württemberg. In the latter, the AfD is stronger than the SPD.
The AfD cannibalised all the smaller right-wing parties including the NPD.
This was not (just) a referendum on Merkel and her policies. While the issue dominated the campaigns, personalities and state-level factors were important. And the two CDU leaders who toyed with a (very tame) rebellion against Merkel did not gain from it.
The volatility is shocking. Period
German states have parliamentary systems, but popular minister presidents exerted an almost presidential effect. The contrast could not be more striking: In Baden-Württemberg, Kretschmann’s Greens are the strongest party (in itself something that is hard to believe), whereas their junior partner, the SPD, is heading for single-digit territory. One key reason is Kretschmann’s enormous popularity. In neighbouring Rheinland-Pfalz, minister president Dreyer has always been more popular than both her opponent and her SPD. But the latter steadily recovered in the polls over the last couple of weeks pull ahead of the CDU to become the strongest party with a respectable result. The Greens, on the other hand, lost two thirds of their support and might still end up without parliamentary representation. Being the smaller party in a coalition run by a popular minister president is not an attractive proposition these days.
Turnout is up, yet it’s the non-established AfD that benefits from it. As a rule of thumb, right-wing outfits in Germany have always performed best in low-turnout, second-order elections. But this time, exit polls suggest that at least in the East, former non-voters gave the AfD a huge boost.
In the last couple of weeks, much has been said and written about the turning tide in German public opinion on refugees, the growing rift between Merkel and the CSU, the potential of a back-bench rebellion against the chancellor and party leader etc. But one of the most interesting (in my book) details is buried in the nitty-gritty details of Friday’s Politbarometer report, which I turned into a little bar chart to illustrate my point.
Source: Politbarometer poll in early October 2015
So 64 per cent of the Christian Democrats’ supporters still approve of Merkel’s policies (and that includes the allegedly outraged CSU voters). But support is significantly lower amongst supporters of the Social Democrats (SPD) and Socialists (Left). This could be written off as coloured by partisan sentiment. It might even be the case that some lefties are unhappy because they want more generous policies. But compare this with the approval rating amongst supporters of the left-liberal Greens. Unlike the SPD and the Left, the Greens gun chiefly for the upper-middleclass lefty vote. Cue my article on competition between traditional left-wing parties and working class parties 2.0, i.e. the radical right.
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.
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.
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.
Coalition Talks: Not Quite as Speedy as Papal Election (and less fun)
It’s crunch time in Berlin: A mere two months after the election, both the SPD and Merkel’s CDU have announced that they want to resolve all remaining issues during yet another sleepless night of haggling (the Bavarian CSU is more reluctant). Tomorrow, they want to present the ‘coalition treaty’, a 170+ page agenda for the next four years. If the SPD’s restless rank-and-file will approve of this document is (quite literally) a question for another day.
First and foremost, this is a remarkable development in itself: Hesse has possibly one of the most polarised subnational party systems. Just a few years ago, then CDU leader and long-term minister president Roland Koch quite happily campaigned on the fact that the leaders of the SPD and the Greens had foreign-sounding names. But after the inconclusive election and four full rounds of sounding exercises involving all parties, a CDU/Green coalition is not longer unthinkable.
The Real Result: Less Segmentation?
But the Hessian regrouping also has a long-term, two-level strategic element (although all parties deny it): If the FDP does not rebound, the CDU needs an alternative. And much by the same token, the Greens don’t want to tie themselves too closely to the ailing SPD.
Black-green coalitions have been the stuff of political war games and academic debates for the last two decades. Now, they could become a reality. I’m not sure if the September election and this long, protracted negotiations in Berlin will indeed bring about a viable agreement between Christian Democrats and the SPD. But at any rate, they seem to have quickly reduced segmentation in the German party system.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.