Just before the pandemic I was mostly blogging here about the political crisis in Thüringen, a consequence of Angela Merkel’s exit, which was itself a consequence of the Green breakthrough across Germany. Then, other matters demanded our attention, such as masks and queuing for toilet paper.
That was roughly what happened in German politics, too – in the face of the crisis, Merkel’s authority shone through and the CDU surged forward in the polls, reversing the losses to the Greens, while the far-right cut itself down to size – from pushing 20% to a steady 10% – with a succession of increasingly ridiculous acts of street theatre, culminating with a faith-healing drummer in unlikely dreadlocks trying to storm the Bundestag. It was as if a reset button had been pressed. Outside Germany this was usually ascribed to Merkel herself, while inside Germany the boast was that “die CDU kann Krise”, obviously a more useful argument for her potential successors.
Today, with Germany having made a start on its Superwahljahr or mega-election year, the political scene looks remarkably like it did immediately pre-pandemic. Back in the winter of 2018, when the original Green surge was on, I estimated that the Greens were gaining votes at a rate of half a million a week. This was the phenomenon that reversed in the spring of 2020, but coming back to Merkel was clearly a very weakly held opinion – the very speed with which the reversal happened might have been a clue. Current polling puts the combined CDU/CSU between 25 and 27 per cent and the Greens between 21 and 23 per cent. In mid-January, the CDU/CSU was on 36 per cent.
It’s crucial to remember here that the structural CSU bonus in Bavaria means that the gap between the CDU as such and its rivals is much smaller in the rest of Germany – we are back at the kind of levels where the Greens can reasonably hope to overtake the CDU as such. With Bavaria accounting for 15% of the electorate and the CSU on 40%, a CDU/CSU score of 27% means the CDU is on 21% of the vote in the rest of Germany, 3 points ahead on the same basis. I’ve used the latest poll here, a YouGov survey; Kantar’s poll issued on the 27th March had the CDU/CSU on 25% and the Greens on 23%. At those levels, it’s happened – the Greens would be ahead.
Not surprisingly this has given risen to feverish political activity. Although the CDU has settled on a party leader it still needs to pick a candidate for chancellor, as in fact do the Greens. One of the most likely options, Bavarian minister-president and CSU leader Markus Söder, said about the Kantar poll that he fears a Wechselstimmung im Lande, an atmosphere of change.
So far, we’ve had two of the major elections planned for this year, in Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz. The calendar is here; we’ve got Sachsen-Anhalt to come in June and some local council elections before the big bang on the 26th of September, when there are state elections in Berlin, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and Thüringen as well as the federal general election.
Ironically, neither election led to any change but both confirmed that change is indeed coming. In B-W, the Green minister-president Winfried Kretschmann was re-elected with 33 per cent of the vote, a record for any Green and something of a surprise in a country that has small and medium-sized political parties as well as small and medium-sized businesses, making his CDU coalition partners very much the junior partner in the coalition. In Rheinland-Pfalz, SPD minister-president Malu Dreyer’s so-called traffic light coalition of social democrats, liberals, and greens was re-elected fairly comfortably. Any good news is welcome for the SPD at the moment, but this is mostly interesting because the current state of the polls suggests that such a coalition could be a majority at the federal level. That would require the FDP to walk back its march towards populism for rich people, but it’s important to note that FDP principles are rarely particularly robust and also that they have been cooperating with the state-level SPD in R-P for years, both in Dreyer’s government and in Kurt Beck’s.
Very interestingly indeed, polling evidence suggests that both Kretschmann and Dreyer won big with the over-60s, breaking through an important generational firewall. As I’ve pointed out before, Kretschmann especially has succeeded by addressing the dense network of clubs and associations that is such a feature of German society, and this effect is likely a pay-off from this. Médiapart has a very good interview (in French) with Der Tagesspiegel‘s Ulrich Schultze on how Kretschmann did it. The key point, really, is that nothing really stands in the way of a Green-CDU coalition – except whether or not the CDU will have anything to offer.
The hope, from the CDU’s point of view, is that picking a candidate like Markus Söder who might inject some energy into the campaign and at least looks generally modern will keep them far enough ahead of the Greens to claim the leadership of such a coalition. But another way of saying Wechselstimmung is fin de régne, and there are plenty of things that might yet wreck this plan.