Mit Dietmar Neuerer vom Handelsblatt habe ich ausführlich über die das Ergebnis der Thüringen-Wahl und die wahrscheinlichen Konsequenzen für die deutsche Politik gesprochen. In der Online-Ausgabe gibt es das Gespräch im vollen Wortlaut.
Why waste my life writing lengthy books that no-one is going to read? Why go through the pain of peer review? Why, in fact, wait for the actual election results to come in? So here is my list on hot takes on the Thuringia state election.
Everyone is talking about the AfD, but the real story of this election is the Left.Bodo Ramelow was the first member of the Left to become Minister President of a federal state. His red-red-green coalition was defeated, but only because his partners lost electoral support. The Left’s vote share actually increased a bit so that for the first time since 1990, the Left has become the strongest party in a Land election. Ramelow himself is even more popular than his party and may be able to continue, either as a caretaker/minority Minister President or at the helm of some new (and very complicated) coalition.
Single-digit SPD results are almost normal now. The SPD has always struggled in Thuringia. Now, the SPD has once more dipped into single-digit territory (after Bavaria and Saxony). A few years ago, that would have been unthinkable. Now, it’s not really a huge surprise.
Germany is not yet the Netherlands, but we are getting there. Journalists and pundits still talk about the “Volksparteien” – the CDU/CSU-SPD duopoly – as if this were the normal state of affairs in Germany. But it seems unlikely that were are going back to a two-dominant-and-some-minor-parties arrangement any time soon. If the FDP makes it past the electoral threshold, there will be six parties in the new state parliament. Just like in the Bundestag, the Bavarian state parliament, and the Landtag in Brandenburg, to name a few. For the time being, fragmentation and volatility are the new normal.
The Green Wave has not reached Thuringia. Nationwide, the Greens are still the second party and poll between 20 and 25 per cent. They have made some inroads in the eastern states, where they have struggled for most of the last three decades. Opinion polls looked moderately good for them, but in reality, they came dangerously close to the threshold. In fact, it is still not clear whether they will make into parliament. This does not mean that the wave has ended today. Thuringia is a small state that is in no way representative and was always a difficult arena for them (think lots of wood and history, few universities/cities).
The most extreme flavour of the AfD remains popular in the (south-)east. It’s not a secret that the AfD is much stronger in the eastern states than they are in the west. Currently, a result in the 20s seems to be normal in the southern part of the former GDR, with some pockets were they go even beyond 30 per cent. The result in Thuringia is well within that range. The interesting point is that the AfD in Thuringia is led by a man who pushes the envelope of being a right-wing populist, a man whose rhetoric, policies and associates are more in line with traditional German right-wing extremism. Höcke has voiced support for rank-and-file members of the NPD when the AfD was still a polite bunch of Eurosceptics. He has spread racist tropes about Africans, has marched with Neo-Nazis and campaigned for a U-turn in Germany’s approach to its traumatic past. He infamously called the Holocaust memorial in Berlin a “monument of shame in the heart of our capital”. And yet, only days after a Christchurch-style attack on a synagogue, Höcke’s AfD won about a quarter of the vote. Some may have cast their vote in spite of him (he was not exactly popular in pre-election surveys), but at least fraction must have known what they were doing. Which is a very scary notion.
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.
Much merriment in the Eastern state of Thuringia: 25 years after the fall of the wall, the Greens and the SPD in the state parliament are poised to form a coalition with the Left (die Linke), which would give the Left its first minister president ever.
What’s the Matter with the Left?
Predictably, this is creating all sorts of backlash. On the surface, it is all about Thuringia, and about the Left’s uneasy relationship with the past. But on another level, it’s about the prospects of triple left (or red/red/green) coalitions in Western states and ultimately on the federal level.
Photo by pdxjmorrisThe Left is one of the strangest creatures in German politics. It was formed in 2007 by a merger of the WASG – a group of SPD dissidents who rejected the welfare reforms/cuts (delete as appropriate) introduced by the Schröder government from 2002 on – and the PDS. The PDS in turn came about by renaming (twice) East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party (SED), the local equivalent of the Soviet Union’s communist party. Consequentially, the continuing role of the PDS after 1990 has been controversial. Right now, the Greens, the SPD and everybody’s hipster grandmother demand that the Left apologises for four decades of state socialist authoritarianism.
What is Left of the SED in the Left? (sorry, could not resist this one)
The other day, I heard Dietmar Bartsch on the radio, who played an instrumental role as one of the organisers of the WASG/PDS merger. Asked about the Left’s relationship with its state socialist past, Bartsch argued that the media and the Left’s political enemies had overplayed the issue: After all, only one per cent of the SED’s previous members were still enrolled in today’s Left. That sounds like a tiny fraction, right? Right, and this is because the figure (if it is correct) is misleading, to say the least. After all, the relevant question is not what became of the SED members, but rather how important the old guard still is today. So lets do the math.
In 1989, the SED had 2.3 million members, roughly 14 per cent of the GDR’s total population. After the wall came down and unification became a real prospect, they began to leave the sinking ship in their droves. Around the time of unification, less than 10 per cent of the original number remained, and over the ensuing couple of decades, many more left or simply passed away, as it were chiefly the elderly who had been loyal to the party.
Against this backdrop, Bartsch’s one per cent figure looks plausible, so let us assume that that many of the old SED stock still remain in the Left. That works out at 23,000. Is that a lot, or not? Over at the FU in Berlin, Oskar Niedermeyer has been compiling party membership figures since the dawn of time. In 2012 (the latest data available), the Left had about 68,000 members. So roughly one third of the current members of the Left were already members of the SED before the Iron Curtain lifted.
Obviously, this is indicative of a strong post-socialist streak within the party. That may or may not be a bad thing, but in my book, the politically relevant fact is that Bartsch built a smokescreen around this simple fact, and that the interviewer – a thoughtful and knowledgeable person – let him get away with it. The bottom line is of course that we need to promote basic statistical literacy: The probability of being a member of the Left, conditional on having been a member of the SED (p(Left|SED)) can be very different from the probability of having been a member of the SED, conditional on being a member of the Left (p(SED)|Left), unless both parties are of equal size. That is Bayes’ Rule for you, Dr Bartsch. Next.
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.
The “Blue Books” have been around for more than 30 years. For each Bundestag election, there is a massive edited volume that deals with each and every aspect of this particular event.And for more than three decades, editors have urged authors and publishers to get on with their respective jobs. Inevitably, the massive tomes have always come out just in time for the next election.
A mere 2.75 years after the fact, the Definitive Volume (TM) on the German Federal Election of 2009 is almost (almost!) ready to go to the printers’. And so is our chapter on East-West differences in German voting behaviour, which is vintage before it is even out (Pirate party, anyone?). Obviously, the details are becoming more and more blurry, so going through the proofs actually made for a pleasant read.
Political Science is the magpie amongst the social sciences, which borrows heavily from other disciplines. These days, many political scientists are actually failed economists (even more failed economists are actually economists, however). I used to think of myself as a failed sociologist, but reading the proofs it dawned on me that I might actually aspire to become a failed geographer.
Local deviations from regional voting patterns
On particular nice map that should have been discussed more thoroughly in the paper shows the local deviation from regional voting patterns. Yes, you read that right: I calculate an index (basically Pedersen’s) that summarises local (i.e. district level) deviations from the regional (East vs West) result and roll that into a choropleth. This way, it is easy to see how heterogeneous the two regions really are. Most striking (in my view) is the difference between Bavaria and the other Western Länder, which is of course a result of the CSU’s still relatively strong position. The PDS/Left party’s stronghold over the eastern districts of Berlin is clearly visible, too.
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.