Yesterday’s three regional elections all had their national and regional stories to tell. The only real common denominator in all three states is the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD).
In the end, the results of the three regional elections in Germany told many stories and had many different outcomes. And in fact, all traditional parties had some painful defeats but also some encouraging results. Angela Merkel’s CDU, for example, suffered strong losses in Rhineland Palatinate, but remained relatively stable in Baden Wuerttemberg and Saxony-Anhalt. Depending on the upcoming coalition negotiations, Merkel’s CDU could still manage to enter the government in all three regional states (up to now, the CDU was only represented in one out of the three governments). At the same time, the social-democratic junior coalition partner in the federal government, the SPD, suffered painful defeats in Saxony-Anhalt and Baden-Wurttemberg, but gained in Rhineland-Palatinate and came in as the strongest party. Finally, the Green Party celebrated a unique victory in Baden-Wurttemberg, being the strongest party for the first time ever in a regional state, but at the same time recorded disappointing results in the other two states.
Not surprisingly, the only party which could enjoy strong gains in all three states was the AfD; at least for the time being Germany’s new anti-euro, anti-immigration party. While the AfD came in at lower double-digit numbers in Rhineland-Palatinate (around 12%) and Baden-Wuerttemberg (around 15% of all votes), it gained almost 25% of all votes in Saxony-Anhalt. As indicated by earlier polls, around three-fourths of all AfD voters favour the party to voice their own protest rather than due to better expertise or political platforms.
In the coming days, coalition negotiations in all three states will start. At the same time, national politicians will try to draw their lessons from the elections for national topics and politics. However, the latter will not be that easy as the election results actually only have one common denominator: the emergence of the populist AfD. Furthermore, other interpretations like the elections were a protest vote against Angela Merkel’s stance in the refugee crisis are too short-sighted. The fact that Merkel’s CDU remained relatively stable in two states and that in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Wuerttemberg two politicians, who actually stood closer to Merkel in the refugee crisis than many in her own party, suggests that the regional votes were not only on Merkel. In our view, the elections showed a general trend towards protest votes against the established parties.
All in all, yesterday’s election results will not significantly alter Merkel’s stance in the refugee crisis. In fact, Merkel – very silently and gradually – has already adjusted the stance towards more stricter asylum and immigration rules. The results were not strong and clear enough to give Merkel’s critics in her own party enough ammunition to seriously consider a coup. To the contrary, Merkel could eventually get stronger again in the coming weeks; also because one of her potential successors, the CDU’s candidate in Rhineland-Palatinate Julia Klöckner, lost an election for the second time. Unless Finance Minister Schaeuble stands up, backed by the more conservative part of the party, to challenge Merkel’s position, it is hard to see an adequate crown prince or crown princess; at least not for the federal elections next year. While her own party should become less of a problem in the coming months, Merkel will be facing two other big challenges, stemming from yesterday’s elections: a politically embattled junior coalition partner and a more general trend in German politics, the rise of populism. The rise of the AfD will give spin doctors and masterminds the biggest headache. The rise could eventually make coalition building after the 2017-election very complicated. It is a rise, which also shows that Germany has caught up with all other European countries: it has finally lost its immunity against populist parties.