If the recent state elections in Bavaria and Hesse tell us anything at all, they simply provide three instructive lessons for Germany’s political elite. The electorate is tired with establishment politics. The political centre, which often balances extremes, is weak. Economic prosperity is no longer a measure for political success.
Of course, the political landscape in Hesse and Bavaria is not homogenous, forcing separate analysis to explain the results. This is necessary despite their similarities. The most remarkable being, for the first time, the AfD will enter Bavaria’s parliament, Maximilianeum, and Hesse’s Hessischer. A far-right party with a taste for the politically distasteful making such strides in Germany is alarming. The Greens are closing in from another direction, up to 24 percent in one recent poll, with the SPD down to 13 percent.
Beyond such broad strokes, the elections do not say, as some have asserted, that the SPD has “entered terminal decline;” that the party has nothing to offer; that the Greens will “supplant” the SPDs; that the results “cemented the Greens’ status as the new rising force in German politics.”
One must consider the contexts that produce results that is shaking up Germany’s politics to the extent that Chancellor Angela Merkel was forced to announce she’d step down in 2021, much earlier than she would have wanted to. Of course, no sage who follows German politics would wager Ms. Merkel had plans to seek another term. She delivered a strong economy prior to 2017. Her exit is a chance for the country’s political centre to strengthen.
Last year here in SE we discussed how Germans upended conventional political thought by stripping their government of its mandate in prosperous times. They have simply reasserted the same message. And this time the chancellor concedes. “Even with the best economic data, with near-full employment in almost all parts of Bavaria, that isn’t enough for people when something is missing that is so important – confidence,” she reportedly said.
Out of time
An astute observation useful for the historic centre-left SPD. One reason for its disgrace in Bavaria is because it was out of tune with the electorate’s mood. Their “12 good reasons” were not election topics. Reducing gender inequality, say at BMW’s board, for example, building affordable housing, and keeping children free from poverty, harken back to the party’s 1891 Erfurt programme. Much the same was on offer then. An 8-hour working week (sic), abolishing gender discrimination laws, including women’s right to vote, and getting rid of school fees. These topics defined the SPD and carved its identify as Germany’s leading left party, way back when.
But in 2018 conservative Bavaria, these themes did not resonate. At the polls, they told the SPD they didn’t need more childcare facilities, buses, trains, new affordable homes and schools. They’re just fine with the labour market rules as they are and are comfortable with the “widening gap between rich and poor.”
The Greens’ success in Bavaria is not a SPD death knell. It’s a sign of a weakening political middle. It took the AfD a single run in Bavaria to achieve (10.7 percent) what the Greens took 36 years to achieve with their 17.5 percent win. Until now, the Greens had been in single digits ever since they burst onto Bavaria’s political scene. The last time the SPD got their lowest score, 18.6 percent, was in 2008. Bavarians do not have an enduring love for the Greens. Proclamations such as “Green is the new Red,” based on an infatuation, are unwise. The Hessians have had a relatively mature affair with the Greens, giving them a mandate in the early 80s and allowing their slow and steady progress to date. These contrasting histories do not provide a full explanation for the SPD’s loss in either case.
Within and outside Germany, SPD’s failure in Bavaria and Hesse is interpreted to mean the imminent collapse of the federal government. This is nonsense. But the SPD has an identity problem not presently shared with any other German party. Why or how did a party, founded on fighting for the ‘working man,’ flirt and go to bed with conservatives? The UK’s Lib Dems made that mistake, once, that they won’t repeat.
The SPD makes a habit of that mistake. This is relevant in Bavaria because a party with an identity crisis is weaker during an election in which identity, not tax cuts, was the main tune. With hate, some say, the AfD sang itself into Maximilianeum.
Both states’ election results create a chance for the SPD to critically reflect. The party gave Germany seven chancellors. Some may be asking: where’s a Willy Brandt when you need one? This is the party that had the spine to say no to Hitler’s Enabling Act but today seems to have lost its footing, once firmly placed in Bavaria where it even formed a coalition in 1946 in the first post-war assembly.
The party needs to look backwards to see forwards, find its spine and keep the centre from collapsing. The party must stop blaming others for its failures. It’s folly for a 155-year-old party to say, we’re losing miserably because of politicking in Berlin. It needs to be more introspective. As these elections show, prosperity and a politics steeped in history don’t get you votes. The SPD is not dead, nor dying. It needs a mirror and some time to itself. Unfortunately, three years is all the time left to strengthen Germany’s weakened political centre in time for elections for the 20th Bundestag in 2021. The political centre, in its current state, cannot hold for much longer and must be strengthened well in advance.
Listen to the audio version of this article