What to look for when three German states vote on Sunday
Three German states — prosperous Baden-Wuerttemberg in the south, the western wine region of Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt in the east — hold elections on Sunday in what is widely being seen as a litmus test for Chancellor Angela Merkel and her refugee policies. Regardless of the results and despite suggestions to the contrary in some media, it seems highly unlikely that Merkel will leave office before her third term as chancellor is up in 2017. But poor results for her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) on Sunday could increase pressure on her to adopt a tougher line on refugees and raise doubts about her prospects of running for a fourth term next year.
Below are five top things to watch for in the votes:
KLOECKNER VS DREYER
The election in Rhineland-Palatinate is probably the most important of all three for Merkel. Just a few weeks ago, the CDU candidate Julia Kloeckner looked like a shoo-in to seize control of the state after 25 years of Social Democrat (SPD) rule. But polls now show her running neck-and-neck with SPD incumbent Malu Dreyer. A charismatic former “wine queen” who has pushed for a harder line on refugees than the chancellor, Kloeckner is a rising star in the CDU and is seen as a possible successor to Merkel. A loss would be a devastating blow to her prospects and deepen anxiety within the CDU. By contrast, a Kloeckner win in this SPD stronghold would give her and the party a feel-good boost. The race between Kloeckner and Dreyer is a first: never before have two women battled each other to run a German state.
When the Greens won control of the CDU stronghold of Baden-Wuerttemberg in 2011 it was seen as a fluke, linked to the wave of anti-nuclear sentiment that followed the Fukushima disaster in Japan and the weakness of the CDU candidate at the time. But five years later, Winfried Kretschmann, the first Greens politician to lead a state government, remains popular and has come from behind to take a narrow poll lead over his CDU rival Guido Wolff. If Kretschmann comes out on top and the CDU is shut out of the state government again, it will be a setback for Merkel. CDU losses in both Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland Palatinate is a worst-case scenario for her.
On an election evening with many uncertainties, one outcome seems sure: a surge in support for the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. The AfD is expected to deliver a record high result in Saxony-Anhalt where it is polling around 18 percent, roughly the same level as the SPD and far-left Linke party. But the big surprise is its strength in western Germany as a result of the refugee crisis. In Baden-Wuerttemberg it is polling around 12 percent and in the Rhineland close to 10 percent. Ironically, strong AfD scores are likely to help Merkel’s CDU by reducing the chances of left-wing majorities in the three states. But Merkel could also be blamed, if the AfD does well, for contributing to the rise of the far-right with her refugee policies. Although no other parties are prepared to cooperate with the AfD, the vote on Sunday is likely to establish them as a national force and give them substantial momentum heading into the federal vote next year, when they could enter the Bundestag for the first time.
Although much of the focus ahead of the three votes has been on potential damage to Merkel, the biggest loser could end up being SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel, who also serves as vice chancellor and economy minister. The SPD could face a crushing triple-whammy on Sunday. In Baden-Wuerttemberg it is polling around 16 percent, well under its record-low result of 23 percent in 2011. In the Rhineland it could lose power after running the state for a quarter century. And in Saxony-Anhalt, it risks coming in fourth place in a state vote for the first time ever. Although top SPD officials are playing down the prospect that Gabriel will be ousted, even in this worst-case scenario, one can’t rule out that he could throw in the towel himself. Possible replacements as SPD leader include Hamburg premier Olaf Scholz, Labour Minister Andrea Nahles and European Parliament President Martin Schulz.
For much of the post-war era there were just three main party groupings in German politics: the CDU/CSU, the SPD and the Free Democrats (FDP). Then came the Greens in the 1980s and the Linke in the aftermath of reunification. Now with the rise of the AfD, the number has risen to six. This fragmentation will be on display on Sunday like never before. In Baden-Wuerttemberg and Saxony-Anhalt, even so-called “grand coalitions” between Merkel’s conservatives and the SPD may not have majorities. This too would be a first.