Alongside European and municipal elections, there are also four state elections happening in Germany this year, taking place in Bremen, Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia. Read Cornelia Hildebrandt’s and Roland Kulke’s comment.
Voters have already gone to the polls in Bremen, where DIE LINKE (Left) gained over 50,000 votes and managed to finish fourth (with 11.4% of the vote) after the conservatives (CDU: 26.7%), the social democrats (SPD: 24.9%) and the Greens (17.4%). DIE LINKE now forms part of a coalition together with the Social Democrats and the Green Party, a governing partnership that has already proven successful in Berlin. However, like Germany’s capital, Bremen is a city-state, i.e. a city with the status of a state, and in these territories, the extreme right-wing AfD party performs nowhere near as well as in other parts of the country (in Bremen the party only received 6.1% of the vote).
The situation is considerably different in the two east German states of Brandenburg and Saxony, which held elections on 1 September 2019. Both states are predominantly rural with a number of small- and medium-sized towns. There are only a handful of large towns and cities. A comparison of the results from Bremen with those in Brandenburg or Saxony paints a unique picture of the political differences that separate urban regions – especially those in city-states – and more sparsely populated areas. A renewed urban-rural conflict is taking shape, one that is specifically characterised by Germany’s history.
The results of the state elections in Brandenburg and Saxony
CDU: Christian Democratic Union of Germany
SPD: Social Democratic Party of Germany
Grüne: The Green Party
LINKE: The Left Party
AfD: Alternative for Germany (right-wing)
Liberale: Free Democratic Party (FDP) (liberal)
BVB/FW: Brandenburg United Citizens’ Movement/Free Voters (Brandenburger Vereinigte Bürgerbewegung/Freie Wähler)
Source: own diagram
Since 1990, the Social Democrats have held power almost continuously in Brandenburg, and the same is true for the CDU in Saxony. Over the years, however, both parties appear to have lost momentum and seen their support increasingly ebb away. The CDU and the SPD recorded their worst ever results in both states. And yet it was the two incumbent state premiers, the SPD state prime minister in Brandenburg and his CDU counterpart in Saxony, who saved their respective parties from an even more devastating loss. (The CDU even received 24,000 votes from Left Party voters and 22,000 from SPD voters in a bid to prevent the AfD from finishing first.)
Nevertheless, these elections have left the Conservatives and the Social Democrats severely weakened. The performance of both parties nationally, where they are partners in a grand coalition government, also played a role.
With just 7.7% of the vote, the SPD is now a minor player in Saxony. For twenty years, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), later known as DIE LINKE, was able to gain at least 20%, making it the second-largest party in the region. This is no longer the case in either Saxony or Brandenburg, the party’s former strongholds.
However, the reasons for DIE LINKE’s loss are very different in both states. In Brandenburg, DIE LINKE has been involved in a coalition with the SPD since 2009. In Saxony, the popularity of the CDU in the region and the fundamental weaknesses of potential coalition partners (the Social Democrats and the Greens) meant the party was never really a contender. Since reunification, it has remained solely a party of opposition. In the recent state elections, DIE LINKE lost almost 50% of its voters to several different parties. Despite previously being slightly more popular among women than men, the party is now losing an equal number of both male and female voters. Across both states, DIE LINKE now only has a combined total of 360,000 voters. In 2014, it was just under half a million. DIE LINKE suffered losses in all voter categories, especially the under 30s. Even among the 45-59 age group, previously their core demographic, fewer and fewer are choosing DIE LINKE.
In contrast to DIE LINKE, the Greens were able to increase their share, notably among voters under 30. Their core voters are mainly students and those with a university degree. Although the party now has representatives in the state parliaments of both Brandenburg and Sachsen, receiving over 10.8% and over 8.6% respectively, the results fell far short of their expectations. The liberal FDP failed to gain the 5% threshold required to win seats in either state parliament.
The real winner of these elections is the AfD, with the party finishing second in both states. In Brandenburg, it won 23.5% and was beaten only by the governing SPD. In Saxony, despite gaining an impressive 27.5%, it lost out to the CDU. Compared to 2014, the party has thus managed to triple its vote (to almost 300,000 in Brandenburg and just under 600,000 in Saxony). The AfD was able to make such gains in both states mainly by mobilising non-voters (over 240,000 votes) as well as former Conservative, Social Democrat and, to a much lesser extent, DIE LINKE voters. The AfD boasts the largest share of blue-collar workers among its voters: 44% in Brandenburg, 35% in Saxony.
It remains to be seen whether DIE LINKE state premier of Thuringia, Bodo Ramelow, will succeed in stopping this trend, at least in his region. Polls currently show DIE LINKE on 26%, the CDU on 22% and the AfD on 21%.
The impact on options for coalition building has been different in both states. In Saxony, where a coalition with the AfD has been ruled out, it looks like a partnership between CDU, SPD and the Greens is the most likely scenario, mirroring the party formation already governing Saxony-Anhalt. Given the poor performance of DIE LINKE, SPD and the Greens, whose votes collectively total 26.7%, a coalition between these three parties can be firmly ruled out. In Brandenburg, however, the three parties hold 47.7% and 45 out of 88 seats, which means the three could govern with a majority of one. But it remains to be seen whether DIE LINKE will vote for such a move, given the party’s collapse in the state. Here too we might see a so-called ‘Kenya’ coalition between the Social Democrats, the Conservatives and the Greens.
How significantly these results will impact national politics hinges on the outcome of the elections in Thuringia and, most crucially, whom the SPD chooses as its new leader. What is clear, however, is that not only have these elections boosted the AfD, they have also strengthened the party’s ethno-nationalist wing (as this part of the party uses to refer to itself also officially). Their leading candidates in both Brandenburg and Saxony – and previously in Saxony-Anhalt – were all from this section of the AfD.
The growing role of the state premier – rather than of the party itself – meant it was possible to prevent the AfD from gaining power in Brandenburg and Saxony.
The situation of DIE LINKE
DIE LINKE’s strong showing in large cities will not make up for the party’s decline in smaller and medium-sized towns, and even less so their losses in rural areas. This is especially true given that urban voters tend to be volatile, switching between political parties. Saxony has 4.1 million inhabitants, 1.4 million of whom live in its three largest cities, Leipzig, Dresden and Chemnitz. Two thirds of voters live outside of these urban centres and have a significant impact on the outcome of elections.
Taking this into consideration, Saxony’s DIE LINKE attempted to address rural issues as well. One campaign used the slogan ‘Tante-Emma-Laden bleibt im-Dorf’ (Keep our village shops open). Other issues included access to doctors, the right to mobility in rural areas, local comprehensive schools, good quality care, affordable rent, a kindergarten place for every child and a renewed emphasis on, and greater respect for, voluntary work, which helps strengthen communities in rural areas. In spite of all this, the message only reached around 10% of voters in both states.
What do these results mean?
Even in state elections, we will increasingly have to engage in fundamental discussions on how communities should co-exist both now and in future. There are issues that are now frequently raised: should Germany be an open, pluralistic society? What does democracy mean? Can democratic societies survive given the ever-widening gap between growing urban areas and shrinking regions that are being left behind, a phenomenon that drastically impacts communities and lives? In Saxony alone, over 2.2 million mainly young inhabitants left the region between 1990 and 2018 due to a lack of job opportunities and prospects.
In Brandenburg and Saxony, the election campaign was polarising. In Saxony, the focus was on who would emerge victorious in the battle between the CDU and the AfD; in Brandenburg, it was between the SPD and the AfD. In both states, all that mattered was keeping the ethno-nationalist AfD out of office with the help of an emerging broad civil faction. Both state prime ministers clearly distanced themselves from the AfD in the final weeks and took advantage of this polarising of the electorate.
Although this polarising atmosphere was used by the incumbents in their campaigns, it suggests weakness rather than strength, i.e. even at the federal state level, the age of politics being dominated by two main parties is over. What this also means, however, is that all parties will find it harder to form coalition governments, as we have already seen with the emergence of ‘Kenya’ coalitions (CDU-SPD-Green). Time will tell how stable these coalitions are and who will be better able to push through their agenda.
The AfD has firmly established itself as one of the heavyweights on the political scene. Following these results, their ethno-nationalist wing will have an even greater influence on state-level policy, and at the national level, they will decisively shape the future direction of the AfD.
Given the fact that DIE LINKE saw its voter share drop by 50% in both states, it is time to rethink the party’s purpose and the role it plays in society. For now, a red-red-green political project has been ruled out, at least in Saxony. DIE LINKE was not able to get its message across during the increasingly polarised debate. Concrete solutions to concrete problems, e.g. housing, care, access to doctors in rural areas and mobility, reached too few voters and seemed almost impossible to implement. This is compounded by the fact that many Brandenburg residents felt let down by the coalition between DIE LINKE and the SPD. It was hard to convey to people what DIE LINKE stood for.
Efforts to restructure DIE LINKE, in Brandenburg with a rejuvenation of the party and in Saxony with a rural focus, were not successful in the short-term. As a whole, the party needs to rethink its policies based on the big questions of our time and in a way that connects with people’s everyday lives.
 The following considerations are largely based on the arguments put forward in Horst Kahr’s election night report/initial comments on 1 September 2019: The seventh Brandenburg state parliament elections and the seventh Saxony state parliament elections held on 1 September 2019.