Political convulsion after elections in two German states

Election gains for the right wing CDU, whose new general secretary, Carsten Linnemann, called for revoking of German citizenship of Palestinians who are taking to the streets in protest at the Israeli bombing of Gaza (Photo: CC)

Earlier this month, elections were held in the German federal states of Hesse and Bavaria, and the result represents the next low blow for the ‘traffic light’ national government (Red for Social Democrats, Yellow for Liberals plus the Greens) in Berlin. However the current shock waves of escalation and violence in the Middle East have pushed these state elections into the background. Yet, for the first time, they seriously raised the question if the federal coalition is going to last the whole legislative term. These elections will have major consequences in any case. They are both an expression and an amplifier of recent political developments.

The winners in these elections were the conservative CDU and CSU (the Bavarian wing of the conservatives which is organised as a separate party), right-wing populist AfD and the conservative-populist “Free Voters” (not to be mistaken with the Free Democratic Party that are part of the national government). The CDU won significantly in Hesse and the CSU was once again the strongest force in Bavaria – although its 37.1% was once again far below the absolute majorities that it used to regularly have until 15 years ago. The far right AfD achieved its strongest results in western Germany to date and is ahead of the SPD, which after all provides the Chancellor. The Free Voters made significant gains in Bavaria (but are now also ahead of the Left Party in Hesse, with 3.5 percent) and won, on top of their 35 list mandates, two directly elected seats for the first time, partly thanks to party leader Aiwanger, who seems to have benefited rather than been harmed by a leaflet affair (when he was recently accused of having written an anti-Semitic leaflet as a teenager).

‘Traffic light’ parties hit

All the ‘traffic light’ coalition’s parties, on the other hand, are losing. The SPD continues to touch historic lows. In Hesse, where the party provided the regional prime minister for over forty years until 1999, it is clear how far the party has distanced itself from its former mass base in the working class. The fact that the SPD’s Nancy Faeser, who is the current federal minister of the interior, ran as the top candidate but had the audacity to rule out from the outset that she would step down from her national post if she were defeated only put the icing on the cake.

The Greens, who governed with the CDU in Hesse since 2014 and stand for anti-social energy policies in the federal government, are also recording losses. There is also a particularly palpable hatred of them from parts of the population, which they encountered in these election campaigns, especially in Bavaria. Despite this, the Greens achieved their second-best result in Hesse, and its social base remains stable, especially in large cities. However this election continued the trend of voters turning out very differently in urban and rural areas and, in some cases, within different districts. This points to an important dimension of the ongoing political polarisation. The AfD, for example, was actually losing in major Hessian cities while it is gaining statewide. The Free Voters were also benefiting, especially in rural areas. The Greens, on the other hand, managed in some cases to become the strongest force in large cities despite overall losses and won three directly elected seats.

In Bavaria, the liberal FDP was eliminated from the state parliament, and in Hesse it barely managed to clear the five-percent hurdle. It has thus been kicked out of parliament in four of the last seven state elections since it entered the federal government in 2021.

DIE LINKE continues its tragedy, halving its result in both federal states and thus getting kicked out of the state parliament in Hesse for the first time since 2008. It is thus no longer represented in parliament in any of the western German states, except the city state of Bremen.

Elections and polls show widespread concerns

National political issues dominated the elections. Tense economic developments, climate change and immigration were the most important election issues, according to the post-election surveys. Many voters took the opportunity to teach the governing parties in the federal government a lesson. The elections thus expressed the enormous dissatisfaction with the government, but also how widespread concerns about all kinds of social issues are. This applies in particular to the issue of immigration, where a clear majority is now in favour of a limiting the number of people migrating to Germany.

According to one survey, four out of five people are worried about the future – a similar number to last autumn when an energy supply crisis threatened. It should also not be forgotten how many people once again did not put their votes with any party and, disappointed by all parties, stayed at home – in Hesse the non-voters are the “strongest party”, in Bavaria only just behind the CSU.

Right-wing danger and migration debate

If these state elections are a medium-sized earthquake for the ‘traffic light’ coalition and further weaken it, to its right the Conservatives, AfD and Free Voters are strengthened. Understandably, this raises fears of a further shift to the right on the political and parliamentary level and also in public debate. Just a few days after the elections, it is clear that those in power are responding with a further tightening of migration policy – that is, above all, with further curtailment of the right to asylum and the rights of refugees.

The escalation in the Middle East conflict is now merged into the migration debate. Quite a few bourgeois politicians are trying to score points with populist rhetoric and fuel racist sentiments. For example, CDU general secretary Linnemann wants to revoke the German citizenship of Palestinians who are now taking to the streets in protest at the Israeli bombing of Gaza. But the last few weeks have also shown that there are internal sceptics of a more populist course in the CDU and that the party is not immune to a new debate about its orientation.

The actual social problems (a massive housing shortage, broken public infrastructure, ailing health care, lack of staff), on the basis of which the concerns in the population about immigration can arise in the first place, will not be remedied by any of the established parties. As we have explained elsewhere, in the fight against right-wing ideas, the left must therefore emphasize the common social interests of the majority of the population, regardless of origin and skin colour – without stopping to stand up for the re-extension of the right of asylum, a right to stay for all and the rights of refugees. Because this is still possible without cuts for the mass of the population, if the assets of the super-rich and the record profits of banks and corporations would be tapped and used, for example, to fight housing shortages, ailing health care and broken infrastructure in the interest of all.

AfD successes

The AfD’s successes are what scare many the most. They point out once again that the party is not an east German phenomenon. In nationwide polls, it is currently above twenty percent and the second strongest party, in the last national Bundestag election it won 10.3%. In next year’s state elections in Brandenburg, Thuringia and Saxony, it is on course to become the strongest force. This will further exacerbate the instability of the political system. At the same time, polls suggest that the party is currently almost fully exploiting its voter potential, the share of voters that could imagine voting for them, and that this potential has not grown even in recent months while and that the rejection of the AfD has not diminished.

This does not make the development any less dangerous, but it is an indication that the shift to the right at the parliamentary or survey level should not be confused with a qualitative shift to the right in society, in the political views of the population. But the danger of an increase in racist sentiments, up to and including attacks on refugees, is real. However, it is not only the AfD that is responsible for this, but also the CDU/CSU and the ‘traffic light’ parties, which are all talking up the need to tighten up migration policy.

Traffic light before the end?

The ‘traffic light’ coalition will be no less divided after these elections as all its components are losing ground. The SPD is moving back toward the 15 percent mark in nationwide polls, down from 25.7% two years ago. The fact that the FDP can fly out of the Bundestag is not only proven by the current polls, but as it already experienced this ten years ago. This prospect may also lead to a clearer questioning inside the FDP  regarding participation in government, for example.

In recent weeks, the Chancellor has already increasingly sought cooperation with the CDU/CSU, which is ultimately also an expression of the government’s internal conflicts and own weakness. In one poll, a clear majority of 57 percent now favoured early elections. The question of an early breakup is also being discussed among the ruling class and party leaderships.

In addition, sections of the bourgeoisie are likely to start considering whether a CDU-led coalition in Germany would be more likely to reach agreement on economic and sociopolitical issues with the participation of the Greens. This is not new, the Greens first went into coalition with the CDU in 2008 in Hamburg and currently are in government with the CDU in four of Germany’s 16 federal states.

From the capitalists’ point of view, another argument in favour of bring forward the Bundestag elections due in autumn 2025 would be that it would be possible to get rid of the Left Party, which would probably no longer be able to enter parliament. This is due to it currently polling under the 5% entry bar and because the ‘traffic light’ changed the constitution to stop the election of directly elected MPs not linked to larger parties and also prevent a party getting into the Bundestag because it won at least three directly elected MPs. At the same time, a potential Sahra Wagenknecht party, whose formation and official split from the Left Party has become seeming imminent as a result of these state elections and which, from capitalism’s point of view, would fuel political instability just as much as a presumably stronger AfD, would be given less time to prepare. These are all signs that the changes in the political landscape that have already taken place in recent years are likely to continue.

Nevertheless, it is unlikely that new elections will be held immediately – partly because the bourgeois have no interest in the resulting instability and temporary inability to act in view of the many crises, including international ones. Nevertheless, they cannot be ruled out, the state elections have made this possibility a bit greater.

There is much to suggest that difficult weeks lie ahead for socialists and the left. The strengthening of right-wing bourgeois and right-wing populist parties and a migration debate dominated by these forces, which is intermingled with the debate about the Middle East conflict, is not easy terrain for those who draw the line between top and bottom and see the responsibility for social problems not with “the foreigners,” refugees, etc., but with the banks and corporations and the government. However, this year has also seen important trade union and industrial battles. Inside the trade unions, some layers have raised opposition towards the leaderships’ course in the bargaining rounds. The recent conference of ver.di, the public sector and  service union, while ultimately agreeing a watering down of antimilitarist principles saw a polarised discussion on political issues, like the war in Ukraine, but also the union leadership’s relation towards the government. This shows, admittedly at an early stage, where some of the forces that could potentially play a role in the building of a new political alternative for the working class could come from.

Socialist and Marxist ideas can nevertheless be a beacon, because they not only explain where the relative strengthening of right-wing and right-wing populist parties comes from, but also explain that they have their limits and how they can be pushed back. Sol will therefore do everything it can to disseminate such ideas all the more vigorously.

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October 2023