FEPS Fresh Thinking

Two basic lessons from the regional elections in Germany

There are clearly two basic lessons in which we can learn from last Sunday’s elections in Germany about how to compete with the worrying, increasing trend of right wing populists:

Lesson N° 1 – It’s the candidate, stupid!
Lesson N° 2 – It’s coherence, stupid!

These are of universal importance and in that sense though the elections were regional, their outcome is equal to the results of the first rank, national votes. That is because the results in these three regions show this very clearly, in fact it’s even clearer in the two more-populated regions: Firstly, a strong leader sets the pace of the campaign and is successful and secondly, you can win more votes for your party with a coherent message.

Let’s start by looking at lesson N° 1:
A good example of this was seen with the SPD’s strong leading candidate in the Rheinland-Pfalz; Malu Dreyer won 36,2% of the votes. The populists (AfD) got 12,6%, mostly from former non-voters and contesters of the conservative CDU candidate. The SPD had a clear and core message concerning the refugee crisis in supporting the federal policy and referring to the moral and human obligation to assist people in need. Malu Dreyer had also a strong and coherent policy proposal for economic and social policy. Therefore 74% of the votes for SPD were votes of conviction!

Fundamentally, the winning argument was social justice and coherence. It’s also important to mention here that half of the SPD vote was already decided weeks before election day.

Similarly with the Greens who had a strong candidate in Baden-Württemberg; Winfried Kretschmann won 30,3% of the votes. The populists (AfD) got 15,1%, mostly from non-voters and those who are against the refugee policy of the German Chancellor. Also Kretschmann had a clear and coherent argument in the support of the refugee crisis policy of the federal government and the need for a European solution. He also had a clear support for his topic of green policies and policies of social justice and again here half of the voters decided weeks before the election that they would vote for him!

Whereas the problem in both regions is that the junior partner in the coalition lost massively. In Baden-Württemberg it was the SPD who was in coalition with the Greens. The SPD lost nearly half of its votes mostly towards the Greens! In Rheinland-Pfalz the Greens lost even more dramatically and nearly all the votes went over to SPD.

Thus, it’s important to have a strong candidate to win elections. This may sound simple but is sometimes forgotten. In addition Social Democrats should always seek first and foremost for a strong personality with a coherent and convincing political programme. This is the only winning strategy against populists from the right and the left.

Lesson N° 2 – Coherence of the message
Many political commentators believe last Sunday’s elections can lead to a fundamental transformation in the German political system. It occurs that the usual formula establishing a coalition government is no longer working as it was previously because there is much more fragmentation between parties. A coalition with a junior partner these days will not obtain a majority, there has been the possibility to form a government between conservatives and social democrats – a so called “grand-coalition”. However all three results of last Sunday demonstrate this tradition is threatened. The fact that in all regions the right wing populists gained more than 10% of the votes renders this obsolete.

The political commentators argue that the German “Volksparteien” – the two dominant parties of the centre, the Christian Democrats and the Social democrats – no longer catch all segments of the different groups of society despite that the core electorate still votes for them. Though they behave as political cartel parties, regrettably they no longer have monopoly for presenting mutually opposing alternatives. Nevertheless they no longer have the necessary support in the elections to win large proportions of the vote, as this was the case in the last decades of German history when they achieved always between 35% and 45% of the votes.

Tendencies nowadays seem to be either to abstain from voting – a growing tendency – or looking for alternative parties. Both tendencies give room for populists especially in times of crisis or times of challenges as at the moment in Germany with the refugees coming in big numbers to seek asylum and hence also necessary reshaping of German policies. The rise of the German “AfD” has to been seen in that perspective. The right wing populists occurred firstly during the Euro crisis and the discussions to keep Greece in the Euro. They got support amongst those who still believe that the Euro was a mistake and Germany has to go back to the Deutsche Mark. Consequently they have managed to receive more support now in combining inappropriately existing fears in parts of the population with xenophobic and nationalist arguments.

To conclude; social justice, welfare, health and employment policies that work alongside coherent messages are the only way to battle right wing populist’s arguments and to regain the trust.

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