Much Ado About Everything No 9: Hesse Mess

Brazil will grab most of the headlines tomorrow; but the election in the German state of Hesse warrants attention too.

In my 24 October article about the forthcoming gubernatorial elections in the United States, I argued that, in federal states at least, ‘local’ elections do matter and therefore deserve more attention than they generally receive. Although the federal model is different, this is just as true in Germany as it is in the US. And perhaps particularly so in the case of the 28 October state election in Hesse where all 110 seats are at stake in the state legislature or Landtag. Why do I say this?

First, the state of Hesse (Land Hessen) is important in its own right. It is home to around six million Germans. Its largest city is the international financial centre, Frankfurt-am-Main (although the state capital is Wiesbaden).

Second, as has been well understood since the messy (to put it politely) outcome of last year’s federal elections, German politics has entered a period of significant flux and related uncertainty which looks set to get even worse tomorrow.

The current sorry state of affairs was very much underlined by the outcome of Bavaria’s state election earlier this month. The Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern (CSU), sister-party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU) and the dominant force in Bavarian politics for over 60 years, saw its support fall below 40% for the first time since 1954 as the populist nationalist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) took over ten percent of the vote (ie more or less exactly the decline in the CSU’s share of the vote relative to the previous state election in 2013 which the AfD did not contest).

Furthermore, Mrs Merkel’s other coalition partner, the centre-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD), also saw it share of the vote decline by over ten percentage points. Even though the main beneficiary of this swing seems to have been the moderate left (and second-placed in Bavaria after the CSU) Die Grünen, ie ‘the Greens’, this still unarguably a clear sign of increasing voter discontent with yet another Merkel-led grand coalition in Berlin.

If opinion polls are to be believed (and in Germany they are generally very reliable), although the CDU looks set to ‘win’ the election, a decline in its share of the vote relative to 2013 of at least ten percentage points is on the cards. Furthermore, the SPD again looks likely to take a hammering.

Perhaps somewhat ironically given that they have been the CDU’s junior coalition partner in Hesse since 2013, the big beneficiary again looks likely to be the Greens. While much more media attention has been given to the AfD, the Greens have, to use a horse-racing analogy, been sneaking up on the rails in German politics and are now ranked second in most federal opinion polls. In Hesse, they look to be pretty much neck-and-neck with the SPD for second place.

In addition to the fact that the CDU could conceivably ‘win’ the election only to lose the premiership in Hesse (most likely in favour of a three-way left-of-centre coalition comprising the SPD, the Greens and left-wing Die Linke), there are two significantly more serious potential consequences of a disappointing outcome for the two main federal coalition partners, as follows.

  • For the CDU, there is a growing sense that its declining support among voters is being driven significantly by ‘Merkel fatigue’. A poor performance in Hesse would almost certainly further fire up Mrs Merkel’s opponents within the party, which is due to hold its annual conference in December when there will be a leadership election come what may. One writes off Angela Merkel at one’s peril; but even she seems to have accepted that this fourth term will be her last. Although I would not currently give it a high probability, neither would I rule out an attempted ‘coup’ of some sort. And I would give a higher probability (albeit still below 50%) to Mrs Merkel’s electing to step down — presumably with the aim of trying to ease the CDU’s Secretary-General Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (aka ‘AKK’) — pictured above — into the top job.
  • For the SPD, polling as low as 15% nationally, pressure is mounting from its rank and file, increasingly disillusioned by what they say as the loss of the party’s traditional ideological ‘heart’, to quit the grand coalition even though this would almost certainly trigger an early general election in which the SPD would likely fare poorly (perhaps even sinking to fourth place). Even at the time earlier this year when the SPD was arm-twisted into another grand coalition, popular sentiment among its supporters was leaning towards the idea that a spell of reflection in opposition would be the better option in the medium-term. Certainly, the possibility of this happening is sufficiently high for Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer to be issuing unusually stark warnings about the possible consequences (which clearly betrays considerable concern on the part of the CDU about how it would fare in an early general election)

Although, the continuing decline in support for Germany’s two main parties historically is consistent with a long-term trend dating back to the early 1980s (ie the emergence of the Greens), there is no question other than that it has accelerated in the past five years or so; and to the point where it may now have crossed a critical threshold as far as the country’s governance is concerned, ie into a future with increasingly messy multi-party federal coalitions.

All of this points to yet more uncertainty in German politics even if a federal coalition, which has been dogged by in-fighting from the very outset, survives. This, in turn, takes me to the third — and most important — reason why the Hesse election warrants careful attention, ie that a German political establishment which is heavily preoccupied with domestic politics will be even less able to pull its weight in a European Union on the brink of what could conceivably evolve rapidly into an existential crisis over Italy.

Update: 29 October 2018

One of Britain's more notable politicians of the 1960s, Enoch Powell, is generally credited with saying "All political careers end in failure" — which was certainly true in his case. Sadly, Mrs Merkel seems to be going the same way following her party's poor performance in the Hesse state election yesterday.

In principle, her decision to step down as party leader in December is much to her credit. However, I cannot help but think that, in practice, it has been driven primarily by a desire to try to ease one of her allies, most likely Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, into the party leadership, not only to secure her legacy (as she sees it) but also in the hope of staying on as Chancellor until 2021.

First, this suggests that she fails to understand that the unpopularity of her government is as much a reflection of Germans' desire for a change in the Chancellery as anything else.

Second, even if her attempt to remain Chancellor but not party leader was not a reversal of her previous commitment it is by no means clear that she can carry it off. As the Berlin correspondent for the BBC, Jenny Hill, notes:

"Much depends on her successor as party leader. If it is a loyalistlike Annegret Kramp-KarrenbauerGermany might see a smooth transition to a new chancellor, possibly allowing Mrs Merkel to see out her term. But the vultures are circling. Already an old rival, Friedrich Merz, has announced his candidacy. If one of Mrs Merkel's adversaries prevails as party leader, her chancellorship becomes uncomfortable and possibly untenable."

Maybe she will get away with it. But of all today's leading politicians, Mrs Merkel who is widely 'credited' with the political assassination of her predecessor (as CDU leader) and patron, Helmut Kohl, should know better than to take such a risk.

Update: 30 October

Inevitably, dozens of column inches are now rolling out pointing to possible Merkel successors. Most, however, come up with the same three names, ie: 'AKK'; Friedrich Merz, a former leading member of the CDU whom Merkel forced out of office, who is currently chairman of Blackrock Germany; and the current Health Minister Jens Spahn, another Merkel critic. See here for a good example. Additionally, there is also, in my view, a fair number of CDU state premiers who would be just as credible as candidates.

History is seldom a good guide in such uncertain circumstances — and perhaps particularly when it draws on another country. But it may be worth bearing in mind that when another powerful woman leader was forced out with no readily apparent heir, ie Margaret Thatcher in 1990, no-one, as far as I can recall, foresaw John Major emerging as her successor (or the internal chaos which would ensue and which still deeply divides her party and hamstrings governance in the UK to this day).

Alastair Newton

[Image credit: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch**]**