It was Mother’s Day on Sunday in Germany, and Chancellor Angela Mutti Merkel, or “Mother Merkel” as she is sometimes called, was given a special Mother’s Day present in a huge upset win for her Christian Democratic Union over a reeling Social Democratic Party in the North Rhine Westphalia elections.
*** The CDU’s ouster of the SPD in Germany’s most populous state on Sunday and the failure of the leftist die Linke to clear the 5% hurdle is likely to tip the proportional math to a CDU-led coalition with the re-emergent Free Democrats in Dusselorf, the state capital. With the SPD trailing by 10 points in the national polls, the betting is that the CDU-FDP coalition in North Rhine Westphalia will also now point to a most likely outcome to the September 24 federal elections with a CDU-led, Christian Social Union and FDP coalition government in Berlin. ***
*** Chancellor Merkel, however, may be the least pleased by the NRW results, for she is said to still prefer a return to a Grand Coalition with a weakened SPD to maximize her policy options relative to the more conservative factions within her party and the CSU to her right. With the prospects of an SPD-led government fading, which coalition Merkel returns to power with will be a determining factor in shaping how aggressively Germany moves to stoke domestic spending through tax cuts or investments, and how far it goes towards further European integration. ***
With a day or two of distance from the stunning results in Germany’s most populous state, a couple of points can be made on Sunday’s arschtritt (“ass kicking” is the German political term) of the SPD and its Chancellor candidate, Martin Schulz, and what it might portend for the federal elections on September 24:
** The SPD loss in NRW marks only the second time in the post-war period the center-left party has lost power in what has long been its traditional political heartland. But it is also how badly its support collapsed that was especially devastating. Its tally plunged from 39% in 2012 to barely 31%, which is a huge swing by German standards, and NRW is the Chancellor-candidate Martin Schulz’s home state. The SPD state prime minister Hannalore Kraft fell on the party sword, assuming all responsibility for the loss and resigned from her party posts. But the dramatic loss of support was as much a vote against Schulz as much as the surge in CDU support for its candidate, the relatively lackluster Armin Laschet, was in reality a vote for Merkel, Germany’s anchor of stability.
** Schulz and the SPD now face a gargantuan struggle to have even a chance in the September federal elections. The SPD is currently an enormous 10 points behind in the national polls to Merkel and the CDU and its sister party, the Christian Social Union. Schulz, who seems to have mistaken a brief honeymoon of favorable publicity and pop in his polling to mean he didn’t need to campaign on much beyond complaints about income inequality, will now be preparing a more aggressive assault on Merkel and the CDU, attacking Germany’s austerity policies at home and in Europe, pressing for more investments and social spending, essentially just about anything to make the SPD stand out more against Merkel and the CDU.
** The dominant question in Berlin is no longer who is going to win on September 24, but under which coalition government will Chancellor Merkel be returned to power for a fourth term: the CDU/CSU with the resurgent Free Democratic Party; the CDU/CSU with the FDP and the struggling Greens, or; a return to the Grand Coalition with the SPD again serving as the junior partner. The higher betting odds after the NRW results are for a CDU-led coalition government with the FDP, a coalition not seen since 2009-2013 when the FDP under Guido Westerwelle was vice chancellor under Merkel, and before that, when former Chancellor Helmut Kohl held power in what was then West Germany with the FDP’s Hans-Dietrich Genscher.
** On that front, we understand there is a telling fissure between Merkel and most of her party rank and file, and certainly Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and CSU chairman Horst Seehofer. She would prefer a return to the Grand Coalition, with a weakened SPD as the junior partner, perhaps to be again headed up by Sigmar Gabriel. Ruling with a larger majority in the Bundestag, Merkel could in theory better manage to find compromises for her policies by drawing on support from differing factions within both the major parties; being able to turn to the SPD for votes in the Bundestag offers the prospect of perhaps marginalizing the CSU and more conservative factions in her own CDU.
** On the other hand, a CDU/CSU coalition with the FDP will likely tilt policies considerably to the right, giving leverage to the conservatives to Merkel’s right within the CDU and especially the CSU which, in turn, would limit her political options both at home and especially on Europe in moving German policy further to the center or even center-left. Merkel’s meeting and affirmations of a more pro-European integration with newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron is telling, in that how far she can go on a “roadmap to deeper EU integration” may ultimately depend on the composition of her ruling coalition.
Die Linke’s Little Noticed Impact
** And to bring this full circle to Sunday, this is where the breakdown in the North Rhine Westphalia vote enters the political frame. The headlines were focused on the surge in support for both the CDU, to 34% from 26% in 2012, and the Free Democrats to 12%, its best ever performance in the state, while the SPD collapsed to barely 31% from 39%, and the Greens did equally poorly, falling to just 6%. On the fringes, the rightwing Alternative for Deutschland rose to 7.7% to ensure state parliamentary seats, but well short of its ambitions for a 10% showing, while the leftist die Linke fell just short, at 4.9%, of the 5% hurdle needed to win seats.
** That near miss by die Linke is in fact perhaps as significant as the CDU’s stellar performance, for it means the math under Germany’s proportional system points to a CDU-led coalition government with the FDP as the junior partner in Dusseldorf, the NRW state capital. If die Linke had managed to clear 5%, it would have been just enough to make a Grand Coalition in Dusseldorf between the CDU and the SPD much more likely. Again, our sense is that Merkel will probably be one of the few inside her own party who is not all that pleased with the CDU and the FDP forming a government in North Rhine Westphalia, though it will never be said so publicly.
** The FDP’s promising young leader, Christian Lindner, may share Chancellor Merkel’s unease with a CDU/FDP government in NRW. Lindner has rebuilt the FDP after its near extinction in slipping below the 5% mark nationally in 2012, largely by pressing a campaign for change in Berlin. But there is some concern within his camp that the FDP could peak too early with a return to power in NRW, potentially adopting policies suiting the political base there but alienating the middle ground across the rest of Germany needed to solidify the return of the FDP to the national stage.
** The tactical assessment shared by Merkel and Lindner are ironically equally shared by Schulz, albeit from the opposite direction. For Schulz to lift himself up from the devastating loss in NRW — on top of the prior losses in Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein — he will need to draw a sharper distinction between himself and Merkel, mobilizing the SPD base to rally against a much more conservative CDU/CSU government with the FDP in Berlin. He will make a more forceful effort, for instance, to drive a wedge between Merkel and her more conservative fraktions, using Germany’s budget surpluses for investments and more spending on social services rather than tax cuts.
The Green Alternative
** One last point worth noting is the underappreciated position of the Greens. Nationally, it is struggling to maintain a unified party voice, in no small part due to the gulf between the left-leaning national leadership led by Jürgen Trittin and its voter base whose fastest growing segment is a new, wealthier, well educated, and more conservative leaning middle class. That split is most evident in Baden Wuerttemberg, where the Greens lead a coalition government with the CDU under its state leader, Winfried Kretschmann.
** Kretschmann, conservative on fiscal issues, moderate-progressive on social issues and a churchgoer, has little to no backing among the party cadres in Berlin such as Trittin, but he has nevertheless built a popular base, more often than not by siding with Merkel, on the refugee crisis for instance. There is some thought that if Kretschman’s wing of the Greens could come into the ascendancy within the Greens quickly enough, the Greens may still offer Merkel the widest possible political base of support that she seeks if she can’t have her Grand Coalition by leading a government in her fourth term comprising the CDU/CSU, the FDP, and the Greens.