State elections in Germany: CDU and SPD on edge

by Barbara Waldner
Brandenburg and Saxony head to the polls

On 1 September, Brandenburg and Saxony will head to the polls and elect new state parliaments. Predictions by experts and electoral polls point towards election results which will lead to a shift of power in both states.

Although predictions always must be taken with a pinch of salt, discernible trends can be singled out which suggests interesting election results.

Brandenburg – where the winners will not rule?

In Brandenburg, the Social Democrats (SPD) have been the strongest power in all state elections since 1990. For ten years, the SPD have ruled in a red-red alliance with the Left Party. This could change after this election, as currently, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) is on par with SPD, with predictions amounting to 20% to 22% of votes for the AfD, and between 17% and 22% for the SPD. Usually strong in Eastern German states, the left party Linke is currently predicted to reach about 15%, which would signify a loss of 4 percentage points. Similarly, the Christian Democrats (CDU) are predicted a loss of 5%, which would leave them at around 17,5% of votes. With a predicted gain of 8%, the Greens might become stronger than Linke in this election. If the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Brandenburg Free Voters (BVB/FW) succeed in entering state parliament, the Brandenburg Landtag would be made up of seven parliamentary groups. The distribution of seats is determined not only by the second vote shares, but also by other factors such as the distribution of direct mandates due to the special features of voting rights. A reigning coalition of merely two parties – whichever of the many options – will most probably not produce a clear majority necessary for a reigning coalition. This means that coalition formation will most likely have to happen between three parties. Mathematically and politically probable would be a red-red-green coalition between the SPD, the Greens and the Left; however, as this would only produce a narrow majority according to current predictions, everything is uncertain.

A prolonged coalition formation process will have to be avoided: According to Article 78 of the Brandenburg constitution, parties in Brandenburg have three months to form a coalition - otherwise new elections are called.  To avoid this, a minority government might be considered.

Lastly, the Brandenburg elections might produce one new political phenomenon: Traditionally, the party with the highest share of votes produces the prime minister and leads the government formation process. In case of a win by the AfD, this might prove difficult, as all other parties have ruled out cooperation with the AfD. Thus – and this would be a historical novelty – the runner-up could be given the coalition formation mandate. A minority government of right-wing populists would be possible, albeit unlikely – this would require the majority of the Landtag to vote in favour of Prime Minister Andreas Kalbitz. As this unlikely, we are likely to see the AfD in the opposition even in case of a victory.

Is Saxony ready to make a minority government work?

In Saxony, the CDU has been the strongest party since the reunification. Currently, a black-red coalition under Prime Minister Michael Kretschmer is in power. While the CDU might remain the strongest party, with a predicted share of votes of about 28 – 31%, this would constitute a minus of 10% to the previous deferral elections. In addition to this, the AfD has been predicted an outcome of 24% – 26% of votes, meaning that a win by the CDU is far from being certain.

With the predicted outcome, the AfD would have a gain of 15% compared to the elections five years ago. A renewed coalition of CDU and SPU seems unlikely. Should the CDU in Saxony suffer an electoral defeat, the party's dispute over its political direction will flare up again. This will be particularly damaging to party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is currently trying to prepare candidacy for the 2021 elections For the SPD, this election will be of great importance: Current predictions point to the SPD’s worst election result to date, with a predicted 7% – 9% of overall votes. The only mathematically possible coalition consisting of solely two parties would be a CDU-AfD coalition, which, however, the CDU has ruled out. Therefore, just like in Brandenburg, election will most likely produce a state parliament, in which the ruling coalition consists of three or more parties. Another conceivable option would be a minority government.

Minority governments have, so far, been the absolute exception in Germany. While they never happened on the federal level, only a few were established in individual Länder and were rather short-lived. Mostly, minority governments have been the result of a coalition break, wherein an interim minority government had to reign until the next elections were called. This happened, for instance, in Berlin between 1989 and 1990 after the break of the red-green coalition in the German senate, in which an SPD-led minority government ruled for another year before parliamentary elections replaced this arrangement by a grand coalition. The last time Brandenburg had a minority coalition from February 1994 until elections could take place 7 months later as the result of a break in the “traffic light” coalition. Saxony, just like most other German Länder, have never experienced this political constellation before.

If Saxony were to establish a minority government, this would have considerable side effects: The formation of such a government would require tolerance by other parties. In practice, this means that parties would have to rally for a majority support in parliament every time a vote had to cast. In this case, if the CDU were to win the elections, they would have to rely on AfD support and their votes to pass legislation considering the number of seats they are predicted to hold in the next legislature. Here, the question comes in of how this would be different from forming a coalition with them in the first place.

How will these elections transform German politics?

Both elections, in Brandenburg and in Saxony, might lead to a change in government, weakening the CDU in Saxony and the SPD in Brandenburg. Moreover, in both states, we could witness the AfD winning a state election for the first time. Moreover, these elections will likely show us if new forms of government will become necessary for Germany, and whether a minority government will become a viable option instead of just a makeshift. If that is the case, these electoral outcomes might influence the upcoming state parliament election in Thuringia, as the two frontrunners of predictions so far – the CDU and the Linke – cannot form a politically viable coalition.

A comprehensive analysis of the election results will follow.

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