Major changes ahead in German politics – or none at all?

April 6, 2011

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2011 has been (and will continue to be) a year of exceptional importance for German politics, bringing a number of fundamental changes to the broader political landscape.

Elections will take place in seven of the sixteen German Federal States this year, which will have a significant impact on both the country's political mood as well as Chancellor Angela Merkel's ability to govern. Since Federal States – via the German Upper House, the Bundesrat, must approve important bills, state elections also have important consequences at the federal level.

Interim result could not be worse for the governing coalition

Four of those seven elections are over, and the governing coalition comprised of the conservative CDU and the liberal FDP parties (led by Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Affairs Minister Guido Westerwelle, respectively) has a great deal to be concerned about.

An early defeat in Hamburg

In mid-February, elections in the Federal State of Hamburg ended with an absolute majority for the Social Democrats, while the conservative party was voted out of office, seeing its worst electoral returns since World War II.

Barely holding on in Saxony-Anhalt

One month later, governing conservatives in Saxony-Anhalt were just barely able to retain their majority, mainly because votes for the two leading opposition parties, the Social Democrats and the Socialists, canceled each other out. Liberals experienced their first heavy defeat, failing to capture even 5% of the popular vote. They will – at least for the next five years –not be represented in the State Parliament.

Baden-Wurttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate: losses mount for conservatives and Liberals

After holding power there for more than 50 years, the conservative party suffered significant losses in Baden-Wurttemberg and was voted out of office. Against the backdrop of the Fukushima nuclear accident, the Green Party more than doubled its share of the vote. Now, for the first time in German history and since the founding of the Greens some 30 years ago, a Federal State will likely be governed by a Green Prime Minister. In Rhineland-Palatinate, liberals again failed to pass the 5% threshold and will no longer be represented in the state parliament.

What happened?

At the outset of 2011, the governing coalition faced a series of scandals and political hurdles. The former star of the Bavarian conservative party (and potential successor to Chancellor Merkel), Dr. Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, was forced to resign from the position of Defense Minister after he was accused of having plagiarized large parts of his PhD thesis. Equally damaging was the government's abstention from a United Nations vote authorizing action in Libya, which not only irritated many people outside Germany but also (former) conservative supporters of the government.

In recent weeks, however, the dominant issue for the German public has been the question of nuclear energy policy, particularly in light of the Fukushima crisis. Just a year ago, Chancellor Merkel's government reversed a decision by the previous government (led by Social Democrats and Greens) to shut down all nuclear power stations in Germany by 2018 at the latest. Against massive protests by opposition parties and the public at large, Chancellor Merkel extended the life of Germany's nuclear facilities for a significant period of time – up to 14 years in some cases.

Weakened by a flood of terrifying images from Japan and abysmal performance in public opinion polls, Chancellor Merkel recently performed an about-face on nuclear policy: just two weeks before elections took place in Baden-Wurttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, she decided to switch off the seven oldest nuclear power stations for a moratorium period of three months. At the moment, it is very likely that they will never be reactivated.

Merkel and Westerwelle are challenged to heed the consequences – but what if they do not?

Neither voters nor party colleagues were impressed by these maneuvers. As a consequence, both Chancellor Merkel and Minister Westerwelle must now manage strained relationships with their own parties.

Within the FDP, Westerwelle's inner-party opponents have claimed publicly that he will be replaced as party chairman. Since his party's support has eroded by almost 10% in the polls since the last Federal Elections in 2009 and would hardly pass the 5% threshold if elections were today, Westerwelle's time – at least as a head of the party – seems to be running short. It is likely that he will be forced to resign his chairmanship at the upcoming annual party congress in May, so he can concentrate on his job as Foreign Affairs Minister. However, his competitors (mostly younger members) are still hesitant to revolt against him, since most of them owe their own career to Westerwelle. Therefore, it might turn out that Westerwelle will remain in his office as party chairman, at least as long it takes to organize a more structured transition of power.

Criticism from within the CDU has come primarily from the party's right-wing, representing business-friendly, bourgeoisie voters claiming a reversion to true conservative values. Although times are certainly difficult for her at the moment, Chancellor Merkel benefits today from what many observers call her biggest strength: after successfully eliminating all of her inner-party opponents one after another in recent years, there is simply nobody left today with the will or power to overthrow her.

At least one thing seems to be assured today – in just a few weeks, the only two German political parties supportive of nuclear power have completely reversed their position. As a result, the idea that Germany should entirely abandon nuclear power represents the overwhelming consensus among citizens and political leaders.

Beyond that shift, the interim crisis of the governing CDU and FDP coalition might end with some “cosmetic adjustments“ in the government or parliamentary assignments. But in the end, most would agree that given their currently disastrous polling numbers, Merkel and Westerwelle are closely aligned in their goal to bring this legislative period to a more or less successful end in 2013.

–Benjamin Sokolowski, FH Berlin