Six German state governments have elections this year. Two others have local elections. That’s a total of eight states of sixteen having some kind of elections. Everyone in Germany has the all-important national Bundestag election in September 2021, eight months from this writing. They’re calling it a Superwahljar (Super-Election-Year). It’s really a Super-Election-HalfYear, because they all occur between mid-March and late-September, good weather months.
Recent news has brought my attention back to something big that happened in Germany in 2020, which I followed closely at the time and wrote about on these pages. It was the sudden breakthrough of the AfD party in forming a state government, in Thuringia. I wrote about the Thuringia shock and crisis (Post-383: High Drama in Erfurt) and then a series of long comments on the political crisis as it happened, and reactions to it, a kind of political journaling mixed with my own recollections and insights. Thuringia was a big deal, and remains a big deal as I look back, now, almost one year later.
But then the Virus Panic of 2020 happened and shifted political support levels significantly. In fact in such a dramatic way, in fact, that one understands why politicians have dragged on the irrational responses. The media succeeded in scaring people, who were then easy pickings for political demagogues.
In any case, this is the biggest year for German electoral politics in a while. Following are comments and observations.
I should say that observing German politics has been a hobby of mine since late high school. I saw signs in the 2000s that the ground was fertile for an AfD-like movement, observations made from afar which I sensed confirmed in 2007 when I went there for the first time and observed society around me. One cannot predict exact events at exact times, but one can predict trends, and I saw this as a trend. Eight years later, in late 2015, the AfD began its ascent, and in the early 2020s it shows no sign of disappearing. It has gotten consistently strong vote totals in the eastern states since 2016. Its first big breakthrough into actual government-formation was in the state of Thuringia in February 2020.
Thuringia was a political earthquake which completely dominated the domestic news in Germany for a while, even if the seismic waves were unfelt abroad. Just yesterday I wrote an update on the latest developments.
Thuringia 2020 was not just a state crisis, but signaled a crisis for the entire “regime,” evidenced by the unprecedented intervention of overturning a state election by Berlin. “Election meddling,” indeed! This kind of bold move is a sign that it was national-level crisis. (It also gives the lie to the idea that Germany is “federal” in the classic sense of the word, as in a federation of states vs. a central government under which there are province-satrapies).
The ruling-party CDU “chancellor heir apparent” (known as AKK) abruptly resigned in humiliatiin, triggering a race for head of the party and “chancellor-candidate.” That became a drama long delayed over the extended Virus Panic which their government has chosen to indulge in, and continues to indulge in (this even though they were for most of March 2020 on the Swedish path of rational, data-based response and No Panic. The sane people ran the show and Germany absolutely refused to demagogue on the flu virus until rather late in the game, but the defenses eventually fell and the demagogues took over. By mid- and late-2020 were shockingly demagogic, basically turning into what if you presented it to someone in full-form in, say, 2019, would have looked wholly tyrannical and darkly sinister, though of course they were not alone in The Great Virus Overreaction of 2020).
A new head of the CDU was finally been selected (Jan. 16), Armin Laschet, who won only narrowly (52-47 in a vote of 1,001 party insiders). Laschet’s nicknames are “The Male Merkel” and “Mini-Merkel” because he is seen to be an exact copy of her and has said everything was done exactly right under Merkel. he is an uncharismatic figure of the usual type for the CDU, though significantly more to the Left than the CDU men of decades past of his same general cut of personality. (Many more comments on Laschet and his five competitors are at Post-383 and comments to it.)
The Virus Panic of 2020, a frankly bizarre social phenomenon which I have struggled understanding, a Bubonic Plague reaction to a bad flu virus, a thermonuclear war reaction to a border skirmish, succeeded in scaring millions and vastly boosting regime popularity. The CDU, which had sagging popularity for years and for which polled voter-preference fell as low as 25% by mid-2019 and early 2020, with signs of further downturn after the bad press of the “election meddling” in Thuringia (into unprecedented lows potentially below 25%), quickly recovered with the Virus Panic to as high as 40%, which will be enough to keep the chancellorship and dominate the government in the early 2020s, if they can hold it in September 2021 when people actually vote.
(Why did people shift back support to the CDU aligned exactly and precisely with the Virus Panic? The answer appears to me to be no secret: When you scare people and drumbeat them into a daze about some major supposed threat, many, or most, will indeed get frightened, behaviors and attitudes will change, and people will “rally to the colors,” go back to the regime and against from protest-votes or openly dissident parties; the Greens and the AfD lost support, as did the FDP; the CDU, which primarily runs the government, was the big winner of the Virus Panic.)
The year is full of elections, including a fresh election in deadlocked Thuringia, where the people stubbornly refuse to vote the way they’re supposed to and polling suggests they will continue this insubordination in the coming state election again.
Elections in Germany 2021:
March 14: Hessen, local elections
March 14: Baden-Württemberg state elections (Landtag)
March 14: Rhineland-Palatinate state elections (Landtag)
April 25: Fresh state election in Thuringia (Landtag)
June 6: Saxony-Anhalt state elections (Landtag)
Sept. 12: Lower Saxony local elections
Sept. 26: Berlin “state” election (Abgeordnetenhaus)
Sept. 26: Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Landtag)
Sept. 26: Bundestag election (federal government).
The fundmental mechanics still work as they did before. I don’t know that they can actually keep up the Virus Panic for eight more months, but if they do, or if the Virus Panic-associated realignment towards the CDU holds, the CDU is definitely going to keep the chancellorship. The only question is if it will be The Male Merkel (Laschet) or the Bavarian Markus Soeder (a crazed Virus-Lockdown fanatic), or someone else, but right now Laschet may be most likely. That outcome is not inevitable but looks likeliest.
The state-level elections may be more interesting, especially given that three ex-eastern states hold Landtag elections in 2021, including the flashpoint of Thuringia again.
March 2016 vote:
— Centrist parties (Green, SPD, CDU, FDP): 78% of vote
— Left-wing Socialist party (LINKE): 3% (no seats)
— Right-wing populist (AfD): 15%
— Others (no representation): 4%
For local reasons, the Green party was the strongest in 2016, as it had been throughout the 2010s in this state. It has co-led the state government the last five years with the CDU.
Polling for 2021: The same result as 2016 except what now looks like a modest shift from AfD to CDU. If they want it, the CDU-Green government can continue but when the smoke clears the CDU may as well have more seats than the Greens, or even an identical number, so some faces at state government posts might change.
As for the organized dissident-party challengers, the LINKE will struggle to get in and would need a good roll of the dice to get any delegates (given the 5%-Hurdle). The AfD is not going anywhere but will struggle to match its 2016 result of 15%.
In western states like Baden-Württemberg, it’s not the AfD’s total that is of most interest, but the ratio of CDU:AfD. Before the Virus Panic of 2020, the ratio was sagging as low as 3:2, whereas it “should be” more like 5:1 or even 10:1. As of now, it looks like going as low as 3:2 would be a real surprise.
Sept. 2019 vote (followed by deadlock and political crisis):
— Centrist parties (Green, SPD, CDU, FDP): 40% of vote
— Left-wing Socialist party (LINKE): 31%
— Right-wing populist (AfD): 23.5%
— Others (no representation): 5.5%
Polling for 2021 suggests the exact same outcome for the fresh election, but given that any election is a dice roll, the actual number of seats could change. It’s hard to see how the right-leaning parties of among the Centrists could support any government with LINKE, so the Thuriniga crisis will likely be back.
March 2016 vote:
— Centrist parties (CDU, SPD, Green): 46% of vote
— Left-wing Socialist party (LINKE): 16%
— Right-wing populist (AfD): 24%
— Others (no representation): 14%
The FDP narrowly missed the 5% cutoff, and other protest-parties got lots of votes. In terms of seats in the Landtag, the Centrists had a majority (53%), but needed to include the Greens.
Polling for 2021 suggests the same result as 2016 (proof that the big realignment in German politics still with us in the 2020s occurred in late 2015 and 2016), except the Greens will get maybe double their previous vote (which was 5%), drawing from former minor-protest-party votes. Likeliest is that the CDU-SPD-Green government continues despite its seeming ideological incoherence, as both LINKE and AfD will again get lots of votes and seats, potentially even breaking 40% of the vote together (last time, 40.6% of the vote, 47% of seats).
Sept. 2016 vote:
— Centrist parties (CDU, SPD): 50% of vote
— Left-wing Socialist party (LINKE): 13%
— Right-wing populist (AfD): 21%
— Others (no representation): 16% (including Greens, freemarket FDP, nationalist NPD, and assorted protest or single-issue parties like the Animal Protection League)
The CDU and SPD, who took 50% of the vote combined in 2016, had 60% of the seats after the exclusion of the minor parties and had a comfortable voting majority these last five years (42 seats of 71). The constant cooperation of the SPD (who got more seats and led the state government) with the CDU at local, state, and national levels for much of the past fifteen years has been a primary driver of the SPD’s plunging national popularity.
Polling for 2021 suggests the CDU and SPD will continue to govern together, but the CDU is now likely to take more seats (a beneficiary of the general shift to the CDU from the Virus Panic). The Greens will also certainly get in, a longer-term beneficiary of the steady loss of popularity for the SPD agfter they again refused to fight and again agreed in late 2017 to be the Merkel-support-wing of the German Federal Republic. The SPD is historically strong in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (which is coincidentally Merkel’s home region), going back generations, and has usually led the state government, but that may end in 2021.
As for challengers from parties characterizable at least in theory as anti-system, LINKE and AfD (and formerly NPD, which is openly and explicitly an anti-system party of the Right, and had delegates in the state Landtag from 2006 to 2016), there is no clear sign of movement in their support. Though the AfD–>CDU story may well hold here, too.
The Mecklenburg-Vorpommern vote is scheduled the same day as the national Bundestag election.