The elections to the 7th Brandenburg Landtag (state parliament) and the 7th Saxonian Landtag on 1 September 2019 launch a new cycle in German parliamentary democracy.
In 2014, the Alternative für Deutschland party (Alternative for Germany, AfD) entered three state parliaments for the first time. It is now represented in all state parliaments. Yesterday’s election, which begins a new political term, was the culmination of a five-year political transition period. The previous term was marked by astonishment at the emergence of a party to the right of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), despite—or because of—its various metamorphoses towards an anti-democratic, authoritarian-nationalist party, and by the puzzling over how its voters could best be reclaimed. The next term will be marked by the realization that the parliamentary existence of this party will persist and that there is a considerable number of citizens in this society who not merely accept but share and endorse its political positions and style.
The outcome of yesterday's state elections in Brandenburg and Saxony confirms some of the tendencies observed since the 2016 state elections:
- The re-politicization of public discourse continues, and political issues play an increasingly important role in everyday conversations. This is not so much in relation to specific topics, but to questions of socio-political direction more broadly. How endangered is parliamentary democracy if a right-wing, nationalist völkisch party continues to strengthen? What changes to everyday life are wrought by immigration and socio-economic changes, and what do these mean respectively for conflicting notions of a good society? In short, socio-political debates are taking place throughout society over how we live together in the future - and voter turnout is increasing.
- The time of the people’s parties as they originated in the old Federal Republic is over. The party system has changed: instead of two major parties and several smaller parties, several medium-sized parties and several smaller parties now compete with one another. For voters, the possible election outcome—in terms of which parties will form government—will consequently be more complex and makes tactical decisions more difficult. An orientation towards individual personalities and roles, typically the state premier, is gaining importance. Michael Kretschmer and Dietmar Woidke, for example, enjoyed great respect beyond their own party’s followers, and there was no change in this sentiment even when approval of their parties declined. In the polls, the closer the question of who will/should govern approached, the more they boosted their parties’ approval overall. This repeated the situation in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate in the spring of 2016: in one state, the premier boosted the popularity of a party which in the other experienced significant losses.
- The transformation of the party system makes forming a government more difficult. After these elections, all parties must finally brace themselves for longstanding patterns of government formation to become the exception, while the former exceptions become the rule. The necessary formation of “unpopular” coalitions will, on the one hand, democratize public debate about the nature of coalitions, but on the other hand provide more and more fodder for populist attacks on the “old parties”, “system parties” or the “neoliberal party cartel”. It may be that as adjustment to the new reality proceeds, a return to coalition election campaigns will become more important: several parties have put joint-government programmes to voters.
- The AfD has established itself as a constant in the party system. The question of how the other parties—especially the CDU—cooperate will also become increasingly important for the development of the AfD itself. The AfD is faced with the strategic decision either to pursue the path of a constantly radicalizing movement or to focus on fulfilling its mandate through government power. In the latter case, associations like the Werte-Union (Values Union) inside the CDU and its sister party the Christian Social Union, or individuals like Hans-Georg Maaßen will serve as bridges between the parties. As for the other parties, they will finally have to accept that the election result for the AfD was not merely a (one-time) protest, but an abandonment of the other parties, their programmes, and their socio-political ideas. Whoever votes for the AfD wants a different society to the one that presently exists.
Voter turnout has increased significantly in both states. All parties were able to mobilize former non-voters (in net values); the strongest in both states in this regard was the AfD. In both states, the sitting governments were voted out, but the premiers had their positions confirmed. To what extent tactical considerations to prevent the emergence of the AfD as the “strongest party” affected the result for the party of the premier, as was suggested on election night by the Greens and Die Linke, remains a matter of speculation. Had there been such a mood on a larger scale, then it would have to have influenced the supporters of the CDU and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the first instance.
Forming government: In Saxony, two of the seats won by the AfD remain vacant due to the restriction of the number of candidates on the AfD slate to 30. 60 seats are sufficient for a governing majority. A continuation of the previous CDU-SPD coalition is not possible, nor is a CDU-Greens coalition. Mathematically, the CDU is only able to construct a two-party coalition either with the AfD, or with Die Linke, which the CDU has already ruled out. Therefore, the only remaining options are the formation of a minority government or a “Kenya” coalition consisting of the CDU, the SPD, and the Greens. In Brandenburg, the SPD and Die Linke have likewise lost their governing majority. The required 45 seats can only be achieved together with the Greens. An SPD-CDU coalition is impossible; here, too, the inclusion of the Greens would be necessary to achieve a (stable) majority. Likewise, the CDU is unable to form a government with the AfD.
The electoral winner is undoubtedly the AfD. On the 80th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland, a nationalist völkisch party has once again won approval. In both Saxony and Brandenburg, the AfD has essentially confirmed its results in the 2017 federal election and the 2019 European elections. It has not achieved a breakthrough to the position of “strongest party”, its next milestone. What it has achieved in both states is the merging of right-wing conservative structures and milieus with those that are openly extreme right-wing, nationalist and völkisch, and which have been systematically built in those regions since the early 1990s. This party is supported by predominantly male voters, from all social classes - a cross-class vertical alliance, wherein approval ratings among the ideological milieus of the traditional workforce, those with intermediate qualifications who perform skilled work, are higher than average. It found particularly strong endorsement among gainfully employed men, as well as in the brown-coal mining district of Lausitz and in electorates with declining populations. AfD voters record a high degree of ideological agreement with core AfD positions (immigration, Islam, crime), are aware of the party’s right-wing extremist positions, of which a third to a half say stronger demarcations are necessary, and want to be able to express their opinion without being criticized, labelled, or repudiated.
Die Linke is the loser on election night, having lost votes in all directions. Both as a governing and as an opposition party, it has shrunk steadily to around one-tenth of the vote, which even falls below its result in the European elections. Long-standing discussions about which role—government or opposition—would place the party in better stead proved unproductive. Ostensibly, the party’s attempts to reorient itself more towards the rural regions (Saxony) or to carry out a rejuvenation of the party while in government (Brandenburg) did not lead to the immediate successes that were hoped for. The problems, in fact, lie deeper: the consequences of the changing age demographic of both the membership and the electorate now appear to be stronger; the generation who in 1989 were between 15 and 35 years old, and are now in the second half of their working lives, were traditionally only weakly represented, which led to important ties not being forged. In the meantime, a higher-than-average approval among younger voters has receded. Finally, the recent disputes within the party have led to a new, rather paralyzing and also outwardly visible conflict: whether a party of the left should understand itself first and foremost as a champion of the “poor and weak” in society or (!) as a determined advocate regarding “human issues” (such as climate change and its consequences). The strengths of the left have always been those phases in which questions of wealth distribution were able to be linked to political passion for a better, fairer society as a tangible vision. This “programmatic” gap is shared by both Die Linke and the SPD; a programmatic renewal and fresh inspiration in the response to the great questions of the future seem unavoidable.
The CDU is also among the losers. In both states, it achieved its worst ever state election result. The new party leadership has been weakened, and the question of how to negotiate the dispute with the AfD will increasingly gain in importance.
The SPD has also done worse in both states than ever before, with the result in Saxony its worst ever in a state election. As with other parties, it is possible that the party’s “performance” at the federal level—that is, if it stays in the “grand coalition”, what will the new leadership and party trajectory look like? —played a role.
The Greens continue to lag behind their polling numbers when it comes to election results. However, this “western”-designated party has for the first time achieved double digits in the Brandenburg state legislature. Nevertheless, they were unable in either state to position themselves as a counterweight to the AfD. They won support above all from people who care about climate issues. This support is especially strong among young and more educated voters. In both states, the Greens face the prospect of entering into coalition negotiations and governing roles.
Horst Kahrs is a research fellow at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Institute for Critical Social Analysis.