On Sunday, March 13, regional government elections took place in the three German states of Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland–Palatinate, and Saxony-Anhalt. The overall results were, indeed, a very mixed bag.
In Baden-Württemberg, 5 years ago, the Greens formed a coalition government together with the social democrats (SPD). At that time the Greens were at 24% and the social democrats at 23%. The CDU that had governed this state since 1953 assumed that this Green-Red government would turn out to be an awkward outlier and they would be returned to power last Sunday. Quite to the contrary, the election turned out to be the greatest victory the German Greens have ever seen in numbers: They ended up as the strongest party in the state with 30.3%. They won 46 out of 70 constituencies that were at stake. They also trounced the CDU: CDU dropped from 39% (2011), which was their weakest result ever, to now 27%. The liberals won 3 percentage points and stand at 8.3% now. The SPD was reduced to about 12.7%. And, in an unpleasant surprise, the right-wing populist AfD gained a shocking 15.1%.
The Green and Red government will not be able to carry on because of the heavy losses of SPD. CDU will try to form a government against the Greens with the support of SPD and the liberals. But my prediction is that they will fail. In the end, there might be either a “traffic light”-coalition Greens, liberals (yellow), and SPD (red), or a Green-led coalition with CDU.
All observers agree that the biggest positive influence in this marvelous Green success has been state prime minister Winfried Kretschmann. In one poll people were asked to rate the last four Baden-Württemberg prime ministers. Kretschmann’s three CDU predecessors were given “good” grades by 65%, 37%, 13% respectively, while he got an overwhelming 89%. Greens won a lot of votes from SPD and also from CDU. The main reasons, according to a poll, for the CDU-Green crossover were, in that sequence, social justice; economy & jobs; energy & environment; refugee policy.
During the campaign, Kretschmann stubbornly defended the German chancellor Merkel’s refugee policy of “Wir schaffen das!” And in that context famously said that he was praying for the chancellor’s health, while the leader of the CDU campaign unsuccessfully tried to distance himself from his chancellor and attack her from the right.
The depths of this Green victory will resonate throughout Germany’s federal republic. It signals the advent of a new political phase in which Greens can successfully compete with the traditional mainstream parties CDU and SPD as a pole of orientation for the development of the country and its society. The victory says: Greens need not remain just a secondary colour in coalition with others, supplementing their political line here or there. Greens can take the lead with popular support.
In Saxony-Anhalt and Rhineland-Palatinate on the contrary Greens just barely crossed the 5% threshold. Ironically however, they will probably both be in their next state governments, because under the pressure of the growing populist right it will probably not be possible to form governments without them (in Saxony-Anhalt AfD gained more than 24% of the vote!). There will be a lot of food for discussion within the German Greens in evaluating the different developments. In Rhineland-Palatinate the Greens lost about 2/3rd of the votes they had gained 5 years ago. It is obvious that Baden-Württemberg is, so far, very much still a singular case. German Greens will have to analyze how they can learn from what went right there without trying to copy Kretschmann & Co.
Strategically of at least the same relevance as Kretschmann’s big victory is the breakthrough for AfD with double digit results in all three regions. According to polls, AfD was not voted in because people knew their program or liked their leaders, it was a vote of protest against the established parties (including to a small degree also the Greens and to a very considerable degree Die Linke – the left party). However, AfD will not easily go away again. They have managed to infiltrate mainstream thinking in Germany much more deeply than any right-wing-extremist party before them.
Is Germany tilting to the right? Yes, to some degree it is. And to some degree it is tilting Green.
CDU and SPD, who have served as the main pillars of German democracy over the last more than 60 years, are weaker than ever before. In Saxony-Anhalt and Baden-Württemberg, even together, they represent clearly less than 50% of the vote. They are more and more hollowed out politically, intellectually and morally. Big challenges for the German Greens are ahead of us! Huge responsibilities! It might have been better, if we had been granted more time by our voters to prepare for these challenges. But this is where we are at. Hic rhodus, hic salta.