This Sunday, voters in Baden-Württemberg in Germany and in neighboring Rhineland-Palatinate went to the state elections. In Baden-Württemberg they dealt a heavy blow to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The results are viewed as a guideline for the upcoming federal elections in Germany in September, in which Merkel is no longer at the top of the CDU for the first time in a decade and a half.
Industry giants such as Daimler and SAP are based in Baden-Württemberg. It is also home to Germany’s only green-led government, which has strengthened its power after an initial result in the vote this weekend. In the future it will have a new mandate to draft a coalition government for the next five years. And in September the Greens should continue their upswing. While some are even speculating about the potential of a green chancellor, the party is more likely to serve as kingmaker for a larger party.
Realistically, however, all bets are closed in an election year with a raging pandemic. Just a few months ago, the coalition government of the CDU Greens seemed predestined to follow Merkel’s third coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Berlin’s botched introduction of coronavirus vaccinations and scandals in the procurement of masks caused the CDU a historic loss in the elections in Baden-Württemberg.
The downward trend could continue – especially if two ministers in Berlin are under fire for mismanagement of the pandemic and several corruption scandals that are following the CDU. If the party loses further support, it will be difficult to form the coalition it wants. It can even be excluded from government at the federal level. In Baden-Württemberg, the Greens could end their coalition with the CDU and join forces with the SPD and the Free Democratic Party (FDP), the liberal party of Germany, to form a government
In addition to the headline-grabbing victories and losses, Baden-Württemberg also offers trends for the smaller German parties. For example, this will be a year for Germany’s newest party, the right-wing alternative for Germany (AfD). Five years ago, the AfD in Baden-Württemberg received 15 percent of the vote to become the largest opposition party in the state parliament. In 2017, a repetition was carried out in which almost 13 percent of national voters were recorded in order to achieve the same title in the German Bundestag.
After Sunday, the AfD in Baden-Württemberg seems to have received almost 10 percent of the vote, which means that the party may be losing steam. Infighting and the pandemic drowned out their anti-immigrant messages and incapacitated the party leadership that dismissed the Nazi era as a mere “stain of bird droppings” in German history. Some Germans will also think twice before casting their vote for a party that the domestic secret service wants to monitor for right-wing extremism in its ranks.
In addition, there is the rebirth of the FDP, which increased by 2 percentage points in Baden-Württemberg, and the AfD could lose its coveted position as opposition leader and appropriately descend to the margins.
In the run-up to the last vote, the AfD based its campaign on the spread of conspiracy theories and information manipulation. It has been suggested that the government’s COVID-19 contact tracking app is being used for purposes other than tracking infections and it has been falsely claimed that vaccinations will be made mandatory. The AfD has also called the coronavirus a convenient excuse for a government that has always wanted to restrict freedoms across the country, and it has found fertile soil in a state that launched the nationwide lateral thinking movement. The protests against lateral thinking have attracted a broad spectrum of German society, from small business owners criticizing lockdown measures to anti-vaccination opponents and extremist groups. Last weekend anti-lockdown protests took place across the country, in which 12 police officers were injured in Dresden. Further unrest could deter voters from the AfD, but heighten the displeasure with Berlin’s handling of the pandemic.
In addition to further domestic information manipulation, secret services are also preparing for interference by foreign powers this election year. The European Union’s External Action Service recently published a report highlighting Germany as the main target for Russia’s disinformation. China also became a topic of discussion in Baden-Württemberg as Huawei sponsored the local CDU party convention and the FDP expressed concern about Chinese influence through local Confucius institutes. The Greens have proposed strengthening media education to counter fake news and other forms of disinformation.
With the CDU looking to September, it will be difficult to blame the popularity of the Greens or the rise of the FDP for their luck. The skillful management of the first phase of the pandemic last spring had driven Merkel and the fate of the CDU high. At one point in time, the Chancellor had a favorable rating of over 70 percent. But now that the lockdowns continue, a third wave of infections has set in and vaccinations are scarce, it will not be a smooth sailing for the CDU.
The party also lacks a strong figure for Merkel to take over. Health Minister Jens Spahn, once a rising star within the CDU, was caught flat-footed for promises that were not kept when introducing and testing vaccines. And Merkel’s loyal Lieutenant Economy Minister Peter Altmaier was criticized for the slow disbursement of aid to companies during the pandemic. After all, the newly elected party chairman Armin Laschet did not win the full trust of the CDU members as a candidate for chancellor, which could mean that the party will recruit the Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder, who has better favorable ratings.
Voters know that Merkel will not vote this fall, and if she is removed from the list, it shows that a CDU urgently needs a changeover. Complacency may have set in after 16 years with Merkel, who is responsible for the state, but Baden-Württemberg shows that the conservatives no longer automatically block the law firm.