The Niedersachsen elections : turning point or stagnation in German political life ?

The Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) region

The elections held in Niedersachsen, Germany, on the 20th of January were not only the last important opinion poll before the campaigns for the Bundestagswahl, the next German federal election, in September get serious. They were a pure thriller – ending with the closest possible result. As late as Monday morning, several versions of the outcome still circulated through the German media. The whole affair ended with the SPD-Green coalition winning by one seat and Stephan Weil (SPD) superseding David McAllister (CDU). In spite of all the joy in the social-green faction, they were not the real winners and the concerns of the party leadership about the federal elections was hardly diminished.

Social-democratic sorrow and liberal joy

Although the SPD gained 2,3%, they still reached their second worst results ever in the traditionally rather social-democratic Niedersachsen. The result was particularly unsettling as only two months ago, an easy victory over the rather unpopular CDU-government was predicted, as well as an increase of votes of over 10%. As a reason for the rather close result many name the chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück, who still suffers for a very bad image in the media and amongst his own social-democratic party members.

On the opposite side, the long written-off FDP under the even more questioned Vice-chancellor Philipp Rösler turned out to be the real surprise of the election. While every poll on the national level expected them to assess their results at around 3% of the ballots, they managed to persuade nearly 10% of the voters in Niedersachsen. This result secures not only Rösler’s position in the party, but it also shows that the FDP is still alive and that it will possibly have a role to play in the upcoming federal elections.

Concentration on the centre

Another trend was clearly noticeable during the elections – the end of the Piratenpartei (the Pirate Party). Despite their short-lived success in Berlin and the Saarland, the rise of this newly internet-based party seems to be over by now. Due to month of internal-struggle and their inability of coming up with a broader program, they failed to get any seats in the Landtag, the regional representative assembly. A fate they shared with the socialist party, Die Linke, for whom this is just the latest in a long row of defeats.

One the other hand Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (Alliance 90/The Greens) increased their share of votes by nearly 6%, establishing themselves once again as the third-strongest force amongst the German parties.

Perspectives for September

The elections in Niedersachsen were definitely not the beginning to end of the chancellorship of Angela Merkel, as the SPD was hoping for. In fact, the persistently negative image of Peer Steinbrück, the SPD candidate for Federal Chancellor, turned a walkover into a close win. But this victory still has some interesting implications for German politics. Most of all, by now the left-governed counties have a majority in the federal chamber. Despite it being not as strong as the Bundestag, the Bundesrat still has a huge potential for freezing conservative-liberal policies for a long time. To avoid this self-blockade, more cooperation between SPD and CDU will become crucial unregarding of the results in the September elections.

Dominik Sonnleitner, student in European Studies, Berlin

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