The elections in Brandenburg and Saxony: Mixed feelings and polarisation

by by Barbara Waldner
GroKo crisis postponed, AfD stronger, but the real winners are the Greens

On Sunday, 1 September, Brandenburg and Saxony cast their votes and the voting turnout reached a new high.

Keeping in mind that – as not unusual for state elections – the voter turnout had been below 50% in both states the last time their citizens elected a state government, this time, more than 60% of people cast their vote. With 67% in Saxony and 61% in Brandenburg, both states reached the highest voter turnout since 1990. What motivated citizens to vote was, above all, frustration.

The elections in Brandenburg and Saxony produced mixed feelings for almost all parties. While the Christian Democrats (CDU) succeeded in remaining the strongest party in Saxony, and the Social Democrats (SPD) the strongest in Brandenburg, both parties are looking at historically bad election results. The Alternative for Germany (AfD), who were able to double their share of votes in both states and became the second strongest party in both Länder, remains without government participation. The left party Linke lost about 8% of votes in both states – and had to witness many of their former voters migrate to the AfD. The AfD succeeded in mobilising particularly those that had not voted in the last elections, with an estimated total of almost a quarter of a million former non-voters in Saxony and more than 100,000 in Brandenburg.

The preliminary results are as follows:

In Saxony, the parties that lost a significant share of votes were the CDU with 32.1% (-7.3%), the Linke with 10.4% (-8.5%) and the SPD with 7.7% (-4.7%). On the other hand, we have the AfD with 27.5% (+17.8%) and the Greens with 8.6% (+2.9%) that gained compared to the last state election. The Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Free Voters (FW), while gaining votes, did not pass the 5% threshold.

In Brandenburg, the parties that lost a significant share of votes were the SPD with 26.2% (-5.7%) of the votes, the CDU with 15.6% (-7.9%) of the votes, and the Linke with 10.7% (-7.9%) of the votes. Similar to Saxony, also in Brandenburg the AfD with 23.5% (+11,3%) and the Greens with 10.8% (+4.6%) succeeded in gaining votes. Moreover, the Brandenburg Free Voters reached 5% of votes (+2.3%), meaning that they will be part of the state government.

The coalition formation process in both states has begun. A so-called “Kenya coalition” between the CDU, SPD and the Greens seems the most likely outcome in both – so far, this coalition only exists in Saxony-Anhalt. From this, we can observe a general trend in Germany, in which government formation in the Länder is slowly moving away from two-party coalitions. Instead, coalition formation processes are becoming longer and increasingly complex, with coalitions made up of at least three parties.

Implications at national level

Big losses in votes have overshadowed the SPD’s win in Brandenburg and the prospect of being part of the reigning coalition in Saxony. For the SPD, this result has a direct impact on the election of the new head of the SPD, which will be decided at the party conference this December. Currently, prospect candidates differ mainly on their opinion on the grand coalition – with some fervently advocating for the breaking of the coalition with the CDU, and some wanting to continue the “GroKo” (grand coalition). While these elections did not cause a crisis for the grand coalition as of yet, candidates advocating for the break of the coalition will have a hard time doing so with the coalition continuing to exist in six Länder.

Another impact these elections may have, is the impact on the composition of the Bundesrat. If – as current predictions show – the Green party will be part of a governing coalition in both Länder, Saxony and Brandenburg, then the Greens would be part of 10 Länder governments out of a total of 16 Länder in the German Bundesrat (Upper House). This would mean that the Green party would gain more influence, as the “Grand coalition” parties CDU and SPD would only have a slightly bigger influence with a government participation in 11 Länder. This would leave the Greens with an influence on 45 of the 65 votes in the Bundesrat, therefore overtaking the SPD with a current influence on 41 votes. Whether this will bring about new ideas and make decision-making process faster or whether this will stall consensus-building remains to be seen.