After today’s regional election in the city state of Hamburg, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) will come under renewed pressure to present a timeline and a mechanism for agreeing on a new party leadership. Merkel’s coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD) managed to retain their position as strongest party in Hamburg, but the celebratory mood among SPD leaders in Berlin is preposterous. Significant SPD losses and a doubled vote share for the Greens highlight that within the centrist camp, political momentum continues to be firmly with the ecologists rather than the traditional parties.
The result of this year’s only regional state election confirms both current trends and overall developments. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) seems to have narrowly missed the five percent hurdle in the city where it had once first entered a regional parliament in West Germany. This might partly have to do with a series of racist murders in the city of Hanau just days before voters went to the polls in Hamburg. The center-right FDP also still seems to be up against the five percent hurdle, after it had cooperated with the AfD in the election of a regional state premier in Thuringia – the political scandal that brought down Merkel’s successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer at the CDU’s helm.
CDU’s travails continue
With a result just above 10%, Merkel’s party lost around five percentage points compared to an already weak result five years ago. The CDU had managed to govern Hamburg for several years until about a decade ago, but that was mainly due to the party’s liberal mayor at the time. Apart from that episode, Germany’s second largest city has always been an SPD stronghold. While tonight’s result will hence add to the current sense of crisis within the CDU, the specific example of Hamburg is one in which Merkel’s party only fared well locally when it had a program at least as centrist as the chancellor’s in Berlin.
Regardless, there will likely be calls for a quick resolution of the open leadership question when the wider party leadership gathers for its regular post-election meeting tomorrow, 24 February. As discussed in the past, however, agreeing on a mechanism for electing the next leader will be difficult: the more the party base gets involved, the better the chances for rightwing superstar Friedrich Merz, Merkel’s old foe; the greater the say for elected party bodies, the better the outlook for the more liberal state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Armin Laschet. Two other contenders further complicate the race; and regardless of the eventual winner, the required coordination process with the CDU’s Bavarian sister party CSU will prolong uncertainty over who will ultimately run as CDU/CSU’s chancellor candidate in the elections scheduled for 2021.
Greens are the only winners
Meanwhile, the celebratory mode among SPD leaders in Berlin added a somewhat absurd note to the evening. It is true that Merkel’s partners in government had not come first in a regional election in a long time. Still, Hamburg’s traditional incumbent party lost some seven percentage points and might have to continue governing with a Green party that single-handedly doubled its vote share. The combined losses of SPD and CDU roughly equal the overall gains for the Greens – the true winners of the ongoing transformation of German party politics.