An upcoming election in the German state of Lower Saxony may affect Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chances to continue at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy.
As the last state to hold local parliamentary elections before the national election in September, some observers regard the outcome of this Sunday’s vote in the northern state as an indicator of whether Germans want to give Merkel a third term.
At the federal level and in Lower Saxony, a coalition government of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and Liberal Democrats (FDP) has ruled for two terms. But the popularity of Merkel’s coalition partner has suffered lately. Without the FDP, the conservative-liberal government in Lower Saxony would lose its majority.
For the FDP, the Lower Saxony election is most significant, said Jens Walther, a political analyst at Heinrich Heine University, Düsseldorf. It is “an important and trendsetting election,” he wrote via email. A win for the FDP would give it a needed boost. A loss could herald its end at the federal level and hence the end of Merkel’s coalition.
Gov. of Lower Saxony David McAllister (of Scottish descent), who is also from Merkel’s conservative-leaning CDU, is significantly favored over his challenger from the SPD.
Merkel herself is still the most popular politician nationwide. Most Germans say she takes care of their interests and ensures stability amid a troubled world economy. A recent poll found 65 percent of voters said they are satisfied with her job performance, well above her challenger for the chancellory from the SPD, Peer Steinbrück, a former finance minister, who received a dismal 36 percent approval.
Losing its majority in Lower Saxony would mean a serious blow to Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
However, neither the governor nor the chancellor is up for popular vote. A multiparty system at the federal level and in most states means the two major parties, the CDU and the SPD need a coalition partner to form a governing majority.
For the last several decades the small, business-friendly FDP has been a coalition partner for many CDU governments at the state and national levels. The FDP won record popular support in the last general election. Now, however, it is on a downward trend and has been kicked out of a number of state parliaments because of a 5 percent of the vote hurdle that every party must pass to hold seats in state and federal Parliament.
As a result, some CDU officials in the state have encouraged some of their voters to vote for the FDP to ensure the coalition remains in power. Gov. McAllister has shied away from such a tactic and instead promotes confidence in the coalition.
Like the FDP, the CDU lost power in recent elections in two significant states, populous and industrious Baden-Württemberg and Nordrhein-Westfalen. Additionally, it lost several mayoral races in major cities to the opposition recently. Losing its majority in Lower Saxony would mean a serious blow to the CDU.
Labor-leaning SPD expects to receive fewer votes than the CDU in the national and state elections, but working together with the Green Party gives the SPD a shot at winning a majority at the national level. The SPD governs with the ecologically minded Green Party in several states and ran the federal government together with the Greens for seven years before Merkel came to power.
Although party leaders are careful not to discuss a coalition shakeup, other party combinations are possible. For Walther, a groundbreaking coalition of CDU and Greens in Lower Saxony would have the “strongest signal effect,” since this would make it impossible to have one camp campaigning against the other during the federal election campaign.
Simon Fink, professor of political science at Leibniz University, Hanover, on the other hand is not a fan of reading too much into state elections. “Objectively there is no signal effect,” he wrote via email.
When a party or coalition loses, this makes preparations for the next election more difficult, “but not because its chances for the federal election actually have gotten worse, but because the actors believe it has,” Fink said.
Fink’s prediction for the general election: “If nothing ‘big’ comes between now and then, the economic situation is always a relatively good indicator as to the chances of the government.”
With Merkel’s popularity built largely on Germany’s strong economic performance and low unemployment amid a debt crisis and recessional trends in Europe, economic news will be a key. On Friday the Federal Ministry of Economics reported that the German economy’s growth slowed in the last quarter of 2012.
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