Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung: Horst, you’ve regularly analysed federal and state elections since 2004. What surprised you the most about the recent elections in Bavaria and Hesse?
Horst Kahrs: I was more surprised by the high level of participation than the results themselves – that is to say, by the growing public interest in politics and participation. The outcome of the vote was actually predictable. All polls suggested it. That said, I didn’t expect the Freie Wähler in Bavaria to do as well as they did, leading to a relatively bad result for the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
That the Greens did so well shows that many voters are obviously looking for a social alternative in the political climate, which has been so polarized by the right. That a counter-pole was emerging could already be seen by the surprisingly high number of attendees at the “#unteilbar” demonstration in Berlin.
The Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD) decried a lack of momentum coming from Berlin. Does this constitute a trend – that voters find it increasingly difficult to tell the difference between state and federal politics?
The voters can tell the difference. The Freie Wähler’s result in Bavaria is a good example. Of course every election also contains a public desire to express a position on and influence federal politics. That was evident in both of these elections, as well as in the 2016 state elections.
Moreover, we shouldn’t forget: as far as the lifeworld is concerned, a problem in the transportation system (for example) is a problem in the transportation system that must be solved. Which institutional level is responsible for the solution doesn’t really matter. Citizens judge their own personal situation irrespective of whether the federal, state, or municipal government is responsible for it.
What consequences does this have for party politics, or rather for future electoral campaigns?
There are basically three options for parties to win state elections: either they have a specific topic in state politics, like, as was long the case in Hesse, the expansion of the Frankfurt Airport; or they have well-established personalities in state politics; or they have a federal party that is so convincing in conveying its policies that they also come across as important for state politics or the state election is used as a vote in favour of federal policies.
At the end of the day, that means: you can’t win a state election with national issues alone and will never win if the federal party is caught in a negative trend.
The Greens received their best results ever in Bavaria and Hesse. What reasons do you see for this and do you think the trend will continue?
The Greens’ success is the result of two separate matters: on the one hand, it was a vote for a problem-oriented and balanced political style; on the other, it was a vote to address truly important questions of the future like a decisive environmental and climate policy, ecological modernization, etc.
We could almost say: the Greens are attracting citizens who are concerned that these topics are not being adequately addressed. I see good chances that the trend will continue. Even if I think it has something to do with this year’s extreme weather, it means that climate change has been acknowledged as a truly important problem. For many people, a kind of politics that secures our survival on this planet is becoming increasingly important. If this concern is not addressed by the other parties, the Greens have a good chance at consolidating themselves at this new level. The voters’ turn to the Greens is also a vote against half-heartedness in climate policy, against climate change denial, and against politicians who, for example, allow industry to jerk them around in the diesel scandal.
Given the rightward drift across German society, do you see any chance for a left-wing majority?
First we would have to take a closer look at this rightward drift. In Hesse, for example, the right-of-centre parties did not receive more votes than they did during the time of Roland Koch and Alfred Dregger in the 1990s.
Second, the left-wing majority was always a theoretical one, as it never – with the exception of several states in eastern Germany – was really up for a vote. The statistical majority in parliament between SPD, Die Linke and the Greens was never understood as a political majority. We have no way of knowing how majorities would play out if there was really this kind of broad left electoral campaign, i.e. if an alternative government between these three parties was really up for a vote.
Furthermore, I don’t think the current spread of votes is going to last very long. A truly structural right-wing majority that is also reflected in government actions is not yet a reality.
Die Linke re-entered the Hessian state parliament but failed to do so in Bavaria. What conclusions do you draw?
Die Linke is much better established in state politics, trade unions and extra-parliamentary initiatives in Hesse than it is in Bavaria. And Hesse was always easier terrain than Bavaria for Die Linke. Of course, the federal party’s profile is always a door-opener for success at the state level. We already had a situation from 2008 to 2010 in which the national role of Die Linke – still a new party at the time – led to significant victories at the state level.
It thus raises the question as to whether the party as a whole is still publicly perceived as offering solutions to the topics that left-inclined voters view as important for their future. I think that topics like public infrastructure, such as the state of hospitals and schools but also the environment in the broadest sense and relations to other countries in Europe and the world, must be placed front and centre much more so than they have then before. Die Linke must make clear that it stands not only for distribution questions but also for a better and more convincing vision of the future.
This is particularly decisive because we have witnessed an ongoing politicization of young people for a while now. Not only in terms of new members for Die Linke or success among young voters, but also in terms of a general shift in attitude. Young people are increasingly discovering that they have to get concerned and get involved.
Angela Merkel has initiated her departure from the political stage, and does not plan to put herself forward as a candidate for CDU party chair in December. Is this a good or bad signal for the political situation in Germany?
Regardless of who takes her place, we will miss her in the world of strong men sooner than we can imagine today.
Translation by Loren Balhorn