German federal election in Lower Saxony

by Jonas Wolframm
RPP Wahl looks into the SPD win

SPD triumph on state level could complicate exploratory talks for a “Jamaica” coalition on national level

After a painful series of crushing election defeats throughout 2017, the Social Democrats (SPD) defeated Angela Merkel´s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) in a vote in the northern state of Lower Saxony on Sunday. A weakened position of the CDU could possibly further complicate the already tricky coalition talks at the national level which are scheduled to start on Wednesday.

SPD wins, but no majority for a Red-Green coalition

Stephan Weil, SPD top candidate, and incumbent prime minister unexpectedly crowned his catch-up race with a result of 36,9 % of the vote, well up from 32,6 % in the last election. The CDU won 33,6 % of the vote, down from 36 % in 2013. The Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) took 8,7 % and the Liberals (FDP) won 7,5 % of the vote. Both parties lost considerably compared to the election in 2013. Whilst the Left Party (Die LINKE) didn´t gain enough votes to overcome the five-percent-hurdle, the right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) managed to move into the state parliament of Lower Saxony for the first time, boasting a share of 6,2% of the vote.

Despite the good result for the Social Democrats, the party is now finding itself in a difficult position. Due to the weakness of the Green Party, a continuation of the current government coalition between SPD and the Greens is not an option. Because the Liberals have ruled out a coalition with the Greens and the Social Democrats early during their campaign and are currently not showing any signs of a change of mind a so-called “traffic light” coalition seems to be not an option either.

As a result, die only two viable options are a “grand” coalition or a “Jamaica” coalition. Considering the fact that CDU, FDP and the Greens are already exploring the possibilities of a coalition on the national level, a tripartite alliance on state level should be the logical consequence.

However, things are not that easy. Two arguments speak against a “Jamaica” coalition. Firstly, the Greens of Lower Saxony are more left-leaning than the national party, thus there are fewer overlapping points when it comes to actual policy. Secondly, the change of sides to the CDU by former Green MP Elke Twesten which led to Sunday's early election in the first place, still makes the Greens and der base fuming with rage and thus limits their willingness to engage in talks with the Christian Democrats.

A “grand” coalition, therefore, seems to be the only realistic option right now, even though CDU and SPD have fought a fierce election battle and both parties expressed their desire to avoid such a coalition.

Meanwhile in Berlin

The results of the vote in Lower Saxony could have quite many potential consequences on national level politics. First and foremost, the poor results of the CDU, the Liberals, and the Greens could hamper the upcoming coalition talks.

The poor performance of the Christian Democrats could weaken Angela Merkel´s position against voices within the CDU/CSU who call for a more conservative position of the party. General Secretary of the CSU, Andreas Scheuer, called the CDU´s defeat in Lower Saxony a “fresh alarm” to return to the party’s original conservative ideals.

However, a move to the right would likely alienate the Greens who already oppose the conservative policies which have recently been advocated by the CSU. Jürgen Trittin, one of the leading Green politicians, who will represent the party in the upcoming exploratory talks this week told public broadcaster ARD that the result of the elections will make the talks not easier but more difficult.

Peter Tauber, general secretary of the CDU and supporter of a possible “Jamaica” coalition, dismissed the idea that the vote in Lower Saxony would have a big impact on the upcoming talks. He urged the participating parties to look forward and talk seriously about topics while leaving tactical games aside.

Tauber´s comments underscore the refusal of Chancellor Angela Merkel to move the CDU to the right knowing that such a move would make a “Jamaica” coalition highly unlikely.

Looking at the Bundesrat, the second chamber which represents the 16 federal states, the SPD will be likely to keep its votes while the Greens will lose some power. However, the effect of the election on votes at the National Council is likely to be limited.

Bilateral talks on Wednesday, big round on Friday

Speaking of the coalition talks between the Union, the Liberals and the Greens, Merkel has invited both smaller parties to bilateral talks on Wednesday and Friday. Based on this first impression all involved parties will come together in a bigger meeting at the end of this week.

From a health-related point of view, noticeable participants of the talks are Federal Health Minister Hermann Gröhe (CDU), former member of the Health Committee and current Parliamentary State Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Finance Jens Spahn (CDU), Vice-Speaker of the Parliamentary Group of the Greens Katja Dörner, and Vice-Chair of the FDP Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann.

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