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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany’s state elections

German state elections don't tell us everything about the public mood, but the past few votes have revealed some pretty clear winners and losers. While support for the SPD is flagging, the Greens are growing in stature by the day, writes Brian Melican.

Felix Banaszak
Felix Banaszak, the chair of the North-Rhine Westphalia branch of the Green Party, celebrates the election results on Sunday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Friso Gentsch

It’s one of the peculiarities of Germany’s federal system that we’re almost never more than six months away from an election being held somewhere. Alongside the national elections (Bundestagswahl) usually every four years, each of the 16 states also hold ballots (Landtagswahl) on varying cycles; then there are local and mayoral elections, too. As such, rolling campaigning and more-or-less continuous election analysis are a part of life here: “What does Election X say about Government Y?” is a question you will always hear being asked somewhere.

Nevertheless, regional elections have a habit of clustering – and generally come at points when national governments would rather not have people poring over electoral data. And this year, after barely six months in office, Olaf Scholz’ novel tri-partite traffic-light coalition has already been faced with three regional elections – in Saarland (27th March), last week in Schleswig-Holstein (8th May), and yesterday in North-Rhine Westphalia (15th May). On a regional level, the popularity of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) has already been thoroughly tested. 

Understanding state elections

The key thing to remember about German regional elections are that they both are and aren’t about national politics. Firstly, here’s how they aren’t. At a basic level, these regional elections are simply about voters choosing a government to deal with state-level remits (mainly health, education, and housing). They will vote first and foremost on these issues.

Personality politics are also important: long-serving German state premiers frequently garner the unofficial honorific Landesvater or Landesmutter –  literally: ‘father/mother of the state’ – and benefit from high personal approval ratings, allowing them to withstand changes in mood at national level. So it is by no means infrequent for voters to return completely different parties in regional than at national elections. By way of example, while Olaf Scholz, SPD, remained a popular Landesvater figure in Hamburg, Merkel’s CDU still won more Hamburg votes at national elections.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why Sunday’s state parliament vote in NRW is important for German politics

Then again, regional elections also are about national politics. That’s because they never take place in a vacuum (except for in Bavaria, of course, where everyone always votes CSU). Even the most beloved of state premiers faces an uphill struggle if their party is currently making a hash of things in Berlin. What is more, the larger and the more representative the Bundesland, the more results of its elections can show swings in voter mood which may be of national relevance.

The Greens’ slow ascent from their mid-2000s funk to their current swagger began in Baden-Württemberg: winning control of this state populated by 11 million people and many of Germany’s top industrialists showed that voters trusted them to be part of a government. That set the ball rolling and by the time of last year’s national election, the Greens were already in power in half of federal states. Incidentally, it is often overlooked that state governments make up the Bundesrat, the second chamber of parliament, which can accept or refuse laws made by the Bundestag. So shifts in power here can be of national relevance.

This dichotomy has the predictable effect that, in the aftermath of every Landtagswahl, the losing parties usually claim that it was simply a regional ballot with nothing to say about national politics while the winning parties play up the significance at federal level.

Olaf Scholz and Thomas Kutschaty

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) congratulates Thomas Kutschaty, SPD candidate in North Rhine-Westphalia, after the party wins 26.7 percent of the vote. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

An SPD disaster 

This is why it is very bad news for Olaf Scholz and the SPD that their only victory in spring 2022’s three Landtagswahlen was in dinky little Saarland, a state whose population is smaller than that of a major city like Cologne and whose local politics are so marked by rivalries and infighting as to have little-to-no relevance nationally. Despite winning an absolute majority in the regional parliament at Saarbrücken (a rare feat in proportional representation), there was no way the SPD could claim a national bearing – and, to its credit, didn’t try to do so either.

In Schleswig-Holstein, the SPD wasn’t expected to unseat the CDU’s Daniel Günther, a likeable and well-liked premier coming to the end of five years at the helm of a surprisingly successful Jamaica coalition with the Greens and the FDP. Here, too, the national relevance was relatively low: Schleswig-Holstein has only 3 million inhabitants and few large towns and cities. Nevertheless, losing over half its seats while the Greens and CDU gained by the same amount was not a good result for the SPD.

What was disastrous, however, was last night’s result in North-Rhine Westphalia. With a population the size of the neighbouring Netherlands (17 million) and everything from Germany’s largest urban conurbation down to isolated mountain regions, NRW is often considered a microcosm of the country as a whole. As something of a swing state, parties which succeed here often go on to win the next national election (if they aren’t already in government).

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What is more, unlike in Schleswig-Holstein, NRW was the SDP’s to win. Until last year, its premier was the luckless Armin Laschet (remember him?), who plumbed popularity depths in his failed bid to become Chancellor. He then left a badly-damaged CDU-FDP administration to Hendrik Wüst, a successor whose profile, if he had one at all, was defined by various low-level corruption scandals (including a regrettable incident where he sold slots with the then-NRW premier, Jürgen Rüttgers, to high-paying commercial lobbyists…).

Hendrik Wüst (CDU)

Re-elected NRW state premier Hendrik Wüst (CDU) celebrates his victory. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

Even if Wüst proved to be an unexpectedly good campaigner and the SPD’s Thomas Kutschaty remained oddly faceless, the fact that Olaf Scholz himself got involved and that the SPD still ended up with its worst showing in NRW ever is nothing less than a serious defeat for both the Chancellor and his party – one which, in my view, underlines how Scholz has not yet lived up to expectations.

Nevertheless, he is in luck. Firstly, the electoral cycle means that this upset is occurring at the beginning of his term; there will be time to recover. Secondly, although Wüst gets first crack at forming a government, the Greens are his only real potential partner – and will take a lot of courting. NRW Greens are on the more left-wing end of the spectrum and will play the field, potentially trying to usher in a mini traffic-light coalition in Düsseldorf if it looks feasible later.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Scholz is already out of step with Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Growing support for Greens

So after the post-Merkel rout, the CDU has scored an important and much-needed victory, but harnessing it to get momentum nationally may yet prove difficult. Indeed, it’s the Greens who have come out of the last two weekends with a new swing in their step. Following a disappointing national election last year, they have once again hit their stride, due in no small part to the Ukraine reminding voters of why renewable energy is important on the one hand and the impressive figures cut by Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock in government on the other.

For the FDP, things are not looking so good. Despite negotiating a disproportionately high amount of their manifesto into last year’s agreement, they are suffering the fate of many a junior coalition partner: a lack of profile. On strictly regional terms, they lost votes to the popular Daniel Günther in Schleswig-Holstein (perhaps unavoidably, despite a good record as part of his coalition) and to the not-yet-popular Hendrik Wüst (following lacklustre performance in government in Düsseldorf).

Greens party posters NRW

Posters featuring Greens candidate Mona Neubaur highlight the link between fossil fuels and Russia’s authoritarian leadership. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Worryingly for Christian Lindner, however, this may be harbinger of history repeating itself. Essentially, FDP voters tend to get enthusiastic for a business-friendly go-getter type who promises to lower taxes and slash regulation, only to later turn their back on him when, once part of a coalition government, he proves unable to deliver the small-state free-for-all promised. That’s what happened to Guido Westerwelle in the 2009-2013 administration, in any case.

There is, however, one bit of unadulterated good news for all parties and indeed our country as a whole: the AfD lost vote share everywhere. The populist outfit didn’t even make it into parliament in Schleswig-Holstein and only just scraped in in NRW. It would seem that, in times of crisis, voters don’t want to add to the list of potential disasters by putting populists anywhere near power. This is a hypothesis we’ll be able to test in just under six months’ time, by the way, when Lower-Saxony goes to the polls on 9th October. 

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Why Germany can’t break out of its Covid rules rut

Despite other countries getting rid of strict Covid regulations like mandatory masks on public transport, Germany remains devoted. Brian Melican asks why the country can't move on from absurd rules.

OPINION: Why Germany can't break out of its Covid rules rut

If you’ve always dreamt of being able to travel in time, there’s now a surprisingly easy way to do it: just take the ICE from Brussels to Cologne. When you get on at Midi station, things are just like they were in Germany in July 2019: friendly guards greet passengers at the doors and, soon after departure, someone from the BordBistro comes through to first class with a tray of coffee; the weather is fine, the train is punctual, and everyone is beaming ear to ear. You can see they are, of course, because they’re not wearing masks.

Then, in one of the tunnels between Liège and Aachen, we speed into July 2022 Germany: “Meine Damen und Herren…” The jarring announcement tells passengers in four languages – and in no uncertain terms – that they have to wear a medical face-mask on public transport in Germany; they may remove it to eat and drink, but must not overextend the break, and must make sure that it always covers both their mouth and their nose; any deviation from this rule will result in them being removed from the train. Suddenly, the guards and waiters re-appear – and this time, they’re not smiling…

Okay, so this may not be genuine time travel, but it’s certainly a good piece of absurdist theatre and, what is more, a graphic example of just how dysfunctional the German approach to dealing with Covid has become. It’s not that Germany is the only country with an irrational fear of people catching corona on trains and buses (but not, say, in pubs, gyms, or shops): in the UK, France, and Belgium, public transport was one of the last non-clinical settings in which masks were still required; in Sweden, trains were the only one in which they were officially recommended. Yet, everywhere else, common sense eventually prevailed.

In Germany, meanwhile, the world’s largest beer festival and proverbial germ-den, the Oktoberfest, will be returning on 17th September, from when each of the 16 largest tents will be welcoming up to 10,000 guests belting out Schlager (and virus particles) from 11am to 11pm daily for two weeks straight. It will, however, still be illegal to take the underground to the festival site without wearing a mask.

READ ALSO: The worst of both worlds: Germany’s coronavirus policy pleases no one

In view of the manifest absurdity of the current situation – and the fact that we are now one of the few remaining European countries with any form of legally-required non-pharmaceutical interventions left in place – it’s worth asking what has gone wrong in Germany, a country which, in the first phase of the pandemic, took a more liberal, measured approach than many of its neighbours and which, since 1949, has tended to uphold constitutional freedoms to a laudably high degree.

People get on and off an S-Bahn train in Frankfurt.

People get on and off an S-Bahn train in Frankfurt, with many people wearing masks. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Arne Dedert

READ ALSO: Germany’s current Covid mask rules

Politics in favour of ‘hardcore’ restrictions 

So why do we still have patently pointless busy-body laws? The first answer to that is: politics. In the coalition, two of the parties – the SPD and the Greens – are wedded to hardcore restrictions, trying to delay their removal in March and inserting back-doors for the states to keep them in place; it was only thanks to the FDP that there was any loosening at all, and to get rid of the bulk of restrictions elsewhere, they opted to sacrifice mask-free public transport use. (Their core voters are car-drivers). As with all bad compromises, however, no-one is satisfied – and everyone is gearing up for negotiations on what replaces the current fudged legal framework for remaining restrictions when it expires on 23rd September. 

Beyond the inevitable spat between a bullish FDP and panic-stricken SPD and Greens, the political problem in Germany is broader. The legislative instrument up for renewal is termed Infektionsschutzgesetz – literally: ‘infection protection law’ – while the state-level restrictions derived from it are called SARS-CoV-2-Eindämmungsverordnungen, which means ‘statutory orders to halt the spread of SARS-CoV-2′. As such, the political debate in Germany is still being held on the premise that we are able to control the spread of coronavirus and that there are state interventions which can prevent it from infecting the entire population.

READ ALSO: German politicians clash over Covid rules for autumn 

In most other European countries, the Omicron wave led to the realisation that it was no longer possible to stop Covid spreading without opting for Chinese-level lockdowns – and to a slightly risky, yet thus far broadly successful strategic switch towards, on the basis of broad vaccination, using the milder variant to build up herd immunity at a lower cost in terms of sickness. While it is easy to understand just how difficult a plunge this is to take – applied too early (i.e. before inoculation), the herd immunity strategy was the reckless hallmark of Johnsonian/Trumpian policy – the facts of the matter are plain to see. Accordingly, from ex-WHO SARS research coordinator Klaus Stöhr to Andreas Gassen at the GP association, there is no shortage of epidemiologists and medical professionals in Germany arguing that now is the time.

People walk past a test centre in Frankfurt.

People walk past a test centre in Frankfurt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Arne Dedert

German angst over Covid remains

It isn’t the time, though, because – and this is the issue – Germans aren’t ready. That’s the other reason we still have these pointless busy-body laws: because the populace is willing to abide by them. Part of the reason the UK got rid of re-imposed coronavirus restrictions for good in February was because compliance was so low as to make a mockery of them: in a country where ONS statistics estimate that 90 percent of the population has already had Covid and where mortality has plummeted, people no longer see the point in protecting themselves; ditto across the Channel, where, after complying to a surprisingly high degree with the excessive regulations in 2020, the French rediscovered their Gallic shrug this spring once they’d all had the disease.

We Germans, of course, are different. There has been no shortage of ink spilled on our national willingness to comply with even obviously pointless regulations and on our communal love of policing each other’s conduct (least of all by me). The problem with corona is that our notorious obsession with compliance is multiplied by another of our national traits: hypochondria. German sensitivity to illness has its good sides – even before Covid, we didn’t go into the office or to parties with streaming colds – but can, like all worthy characteristics, become pathological.

As political parties well know, a majority of Germans is still terrified of corona and has now come to view others’ mouths and noses primarily as a source of danger. After sandals at swimming pools, towels in saunas, and removing shoes at apartment doors, masks are now the next behavioural modification Germans are willing to make – and enforce – in their quest for marginally improved hygiene.

The stress, of course, is on ‘marginal’. As last week’s report on government restrictions underlined, masks can be a useful tool in stopping the spread of respiratory illness – provided, of course, they are worn properly and continuously. Germans beloved FFP2 masks do not seem to offer much more protection than other forms of face coverings. So forcing restaurant diners to put on a specific type of mask from the door to their table, where they then remove it to eat, drink, and be merry, is an exercise in pointlessness. Ditto on trains, where people also eat and drink (not least in the BordBistro…).

Of course, we didn’t really need an expert commission to tell us this: it is borne out by the fact that Germany’s highest ever rates of infection were back in March, when – along with a whole other range of bewildering regulations (anyone remember “2G+”?) – mask-wearing was in force and, moreover, while even famously light-touch Sweden (with whom our per-capita death rate is comparable) had absolutely no restrictions and an exceptionally low case-load.

A sign at the Cologne carnival in February 2022 saying entry is '2G-plus' - only for vaccinated/recovered people who can show a negative test, or boosted people.

A sign at the Cologne carnival in February 2022 saying entry is ‘2G-plus’ – only for vaccinated/recovered people who can show a negative test, or boosted people. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Banneyer

This and other glaringly obvious incongruities, however, won’t stop German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach and his like from trotting out their tired mantra that a high seven-day incidence means that restrictions are needed (regardless of hospitalisation or the overall burden of illness) and that restrictions must mean masks. It won’t stop Germans from agreeing with him, either: our unappealing assumption that we know best means that, rather than asking why our death rate is so high after two years of uninterrupted Covid restrictions of one form or another, we simply assume that neighbouring countries must somehow be wrong.

READ ALSO: School closures in Germany ‘cannot be ruled out’, says minister 

So expect plenty more exercises in cross-border train-travel pointlessness – along with the widespread re-imposition of indoor mask-wearing, hand-disinfection, and testing requirements this autumn. When it comes to coronavirus, it’s Groundhog Day in Germany – and, really, our time loop is stuck somewhere back in 2020/21. The train to 2022 leaves from Cologne every two hours at 42 minutes past.

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