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Germany: The state elections and the fall of the CDU

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In the run-up to the elections, the state elections in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg were regarded by the bourgeois public as indicators of the coming federal elections. Only a few weeks ago it seemed certain that the CDU/CSU would provide the next chancellor. The only open question seemed to be the top candidate and the coalition on which he would rely.

The results in both states show a heavy defeat for the CDU, a shift of forces in the bourgeois camp, the real possibility of a traffic light coalition and, despite the SPD election victory in Rhineland-Palatinate, poor prospects for it.

Election results in Baden-Württemberg

In Baden-Württemberg, the Greens became the strongest force (as in 2016), but were able to extend their lead over the CDU to 8.5%. Votes from the CDU and SPD in particular have migrated to the Greens.

The CDU is not only worse off compared to the Greens. In absolute terms, it has lost almost 20 % compared to 2016, but with turnout also down (by 6.6 %), so that its share of the vote has fallen from 27.0 % to 24.1 %. A few months ago, a neck-and-neck race was still possible according to the polls. The election result represents a heavy defeat for the CDU, which before 2011 had never been below 35% in the state and for a long time was even measured by the achievement of absolute majorities. The CDU's top candidate Susanne Eisenmann was unable to prevail over Kretschmann in the election campaign. As Minister of Education, she opposed distance learning and pushed through the re-opening of schools as early as February, for which she had to take a lot of criticism. Not only did the Greens win hands down in Eisenmann's constituency, but the CDU's top candidate also missed out on a second-vote mandate and is no longer a member of the state parliament.

The SPD, which had been stable in second place after the CDU until 2011, has now once again undercut its negative record of 2016 (12.7 %) and is at 11 % (followed by FDP with 10.5 % and AfD with 9.7 %). However, SPD top candidate Andreas Stoch sees room for improvement even with this catastrophic result and is pleased: the result is "at least significantly better than we had been predicted". Olaf Scholz announces that a government without the CDU has become possible again in Germany - but that is not thanks to the SPD!

The FDP has achieved a good result (+2.2% compared to 2016) and sees itself significantly strengthened. It won votes mainly from former CDU and AfD voters. On the one hand, with "reasonable" (i.e. not openly science-denying) lockdown-critical positions, it has captured petty bourgeois who feel threatened by the crisis, which the AfD has not managed to do. On the other hand, its rise in importance is not only due to its increase in votes, but even more to the weakness of the CDU. After the federal election, the Greens and SPD would need the Liberals to form a traffic light coalition. Their top candidate is therefore already positioning himself for coalition negotiations - and driving up the price for liberal participation in government.

The AfD loses 5.4 %, as well as the two direct mandates it won in Pforzheim and Mannheim in 2016. This result expresses its inner conflict of being, on the one hand, the new "CDU of the 1950s" and, at the same time, a right-wing populist "movement party" with a fascist flank. The wings in the AfD have solidified in the past year, with no solution in sight. In lockdown politics, it has taken a position that in the first phase it took the government line, of course with the usual extreme racist nagging, then, when the lateral thinkers appeared, it swung round quickly and now largely denies the danger of the pandemic, which is rejected by broad classically bourgeois voter strata. However, the AfD has not been able to gain a leading role in the lateral thinking protests, despite its reference to the content. Some of their losses may have migrated to the right-wing populist start-ups "Die Basis" and "W2020", both of which can be traced back to the "Querdenken" movement and are now seen by their respective supporters as the "real" alternative, whereas in their eyes the AfD has arrived at the "system parties". It must be noted, however, that despite its losses, the AfD has a reliable voter base in the right-wing spectrum alongside the CDU and FDP and can develop a greater pull as a racist, right-wing mass party until the federal elections.

Election results in Rhineland-Palatinate

The results in Rhineland-Palatinate point in the same direction as in Baden-Württemberg, albeit with state-specific differences. In this state, the SPD was able to maintain its last result of 35.7 % with small losses. The CDU loses similarly to BW and comes in at 27.7 % (-4.1 %), from which the Greens benefit, coming in at 9.3 % (+4.0 %). The AfD loses by a similar amount as in Baden-Württemberg and reaches 8.3% (-4.3%). The FDP loses slightly, but the "Free Voters" win and enter the Landtag.

Essentially, there is also a shift within the openly middle-class camp in Rhineland-Palatinate. Although the SPD and the Left Party have seen voter migration, their results have changed little. The Greens are the main beneficiaries of the CDU crisis in both states. The weight of the FDP increases, although in Rhineland-Palatinate it is actually one of the losers of the election. For the AfD, basically the same applies as in Baden-Württemberg.

Left Party

DIE LINKE achieved an almost unchanged result in both federal states compared to 2016: in Baden-Württemberg it rises from 2.9% to 3.6%, in Rhineland-Palatinate it even lost 0.3% and is now at 2.5%. In both federal states it fails to clear the 5 % hurdle, which is undoubtedly a major obstacle for the election campaigns of smaller parties. Secondly, for both countries this shows that the Left Party does not have a significant appeal to the working class, despite the disastrous government policies, despite the capitalist crisis and despite the erosion of social democracy. Certainly, the Left Party has always had more difficult starting conditions in both federal states, similar to Bavaria. But that does not explain the stagnation over the years.

This is rather due to the fact that it could not present itself as a credible and radical alternative to the government and as an opposition to capital in any phase of the crisis and pandemic.
Until autumn 2020, the Merkel government's course was essentially supported. Then demands for taxation of the rich were raised, but this remained a mainly parliamentary proposal of the party.

In addition, their policies in the state governments (Berlin, Thuringia, Bremen) were in fact no different from others. They also subordinated health protection to the interests of capital, especially in the industrial and financial sectors. A part of the party sympathises with #ZeroCovid and a decisive fight against the pandemic in the interest of the working class. A third part, on the other hand, considers a left, resolute fight against the pandemic to be impossible and hopes that after the health threat has been overcome, we could devote ourselves to the "real" social questions again.

In order to preserve party unity, on the one hand formulaic compromises are put forward, on the other hand the government socialists in the cabinets continue as before. That the Left Party does not develop any traction with such a conception should not surprise anyone.

Reactions and significance nationwide

The Greens' election victory in Baden-Württemberg, with an 8.5 % lead over the CDU, is a humiliation for the latter. It makes no difference whether Kretschmann will now continue the Green-Black coalition with a clear leadership role or even form a traffic light coalition without the CDU. In both cases, the realisation of the election will be that at the federal level there is hardly any way around the Greens for the CDU - and also in the sense that Kretschmann's Greens are able to present themselves as the better CDU of today, so to speak: an "economy-friendly" state party for capital, but without unproductive, damaging debates like those on the right wing of the CDU. The question for the Greens now is whether they also want to clear the way for black-green at the federal level by continuing green-black, or whether they want to upgrade the FDP with the traffic light coalition.

The election results may also be explained by the popularity of Kretschmann and Dreyer or by the weakness of their challengers. This may put the defeat for the CDU into perspective, but not its significance for the federal election, where the CDU/CSU still face a wing war for the chancellor candidacy. The "office bonus" may benefit Kretschmann in particular, who not only continues the CDU tradition of a personal election campaign free of political slogans, but has also proven to be Merkel's most reliable ally, so to speak, in crisis management.

The CDU, on the other hand, was not helped in either election by the fact that it sits at the levers at the federal level, and the nationwide poll results also show a steady downward trend for it. Merkel's departure seems to leave a power vacuum that no known contender for successor can fill. The acceptance of fat "commissions" by CDU MPs for brokering masks became known before the election, but in their current results the mask affair is not even fully priced in, as more than two-thirds of voters in Baden-Württemberg and also a large proportion in Rhineland-Palatinate had already cast their votes in advance by postal ballot.

For the CDU, the state elections were supposed to be the milestone before the federal elections, after which a decision on the chancellor candidacy would be made. The key finding of the state elections is now that a CDU chancellor is not assured and a traffic light coalition has become a real option at the federal level. This could further boost the Greens. At the same time, the CDU's electoral defeat in the discussion on the chancellor candidacy could encourage Söder to position himself more strongly against Laschet.

Although the FDP is stronger, it is reacting cautiously at the federal level to the question of government participation in Baden-Württemberg. But if Lindner wants to talk about content rather than traffic lights, that is anything but a denial. The FDP will hardly be able to refuse a traffic light coalition in case of doubt, after its bursting of the Jamaica coalition in 2017 led to serious internal disputes. At the federal level, from today's perspective, a traffic light coalition is the realistic government option for the FDP. This in turn is a problem for the CDU and could intensify its wing battles - between the right wing, which is waging a camp election campaign against a feared "shift to the left" in the FRG, and the one around Merkel/Laschet, which wants to keep all options open. Nevertheless, the FDP does not want to commit itself to the prospect of a traffic light coalition in order to avoid being seen as a vicarious agent of red/green government participation.

Whatever the tactical twists of the electoral strategists of all parties and their refinements: To blame the heavy losses of the two popular parties primarily on current circumstances, such as the mask "commission" scandal in the CDU/CSU, the poor corona crisis management of the GroKo or the incompetent personnel of the parties' leaderships, falls short.

Since the 1990s, it has been observed that the social cohesion of the so-called people's parties is weakening, not to say crumbling, because compromises that leave something for everyone are becoming increasingly difficult to find. After the war, the SPD and the CDU/CSU claimed to represent the interests of all strata and classes of society: from the economic to the middle class to the "workers" wing. Of course, this was always an ideology. Both people's parties are historically, socially and organically based on different classes of society. The SPD, as a bourgeois workers' party, effectively monopolised the unionised working class for decades. The CDU/CSU represented German capital, even though, as mass Christian parties, they tied the petty bourgeoisie and, above all, the Catholic working classes to them. The SPD, on the other hand, as a reformist, i.e. by its nature bourgeois party, always presented itself as a better advocate of the overall interests of capital.

Crucially, this system worked for a few decades, but has been increasingly eroding since the 1970s. Since the end of Red/Green and with the Agenda policy under Schröder, this process has become more modest and deepened, which first hit the SPD in particular. The increasing inability of the mainstream parties to fulfil their task to the general satisfaction has its roots in the increasing crisis-ridden nature of global capitalism, which can already be observed since the mid-1970s of the last century.

Falling returns on capital led to an intensified competition. The result is an increasing concentration of capital: the big capitals eat the small ones. The small ones are the oh-so-cared-for middle class, the farmers and, to an increasing extent, the better-off strata of dependent employees. The increased pressure to save costs in order to remain competitive is fuelling rationalisations such as so-called digitalisation, deregulation and intensification of work in all areas of society and thus at the same time the impoverishment of ever larger strata of wage earners.

The political system established after 1945 and its main parties are thus deprived of their business basis. "Weimar conditions", which the people's parties were supposed to prevent according to their ideology, will inevitably be expected again. Bourgeois society and its mechanism of political rule are currently being undermined not by its enemies, but by the sacred market laws of capitalism. No government in the world and no parliament can change this.

What perspective?

But the question arises as to which class, which social force is able to give an answer to this crisis. Even if the AfD suffered defeats in the state elections, the movement of the Corona deniers, the crisis and thus the uprooting of the petty bourgeoisie form a breeding ground for growing irrationalism and right-wing populism. This movement stands ready when "normal" bourgeois politics is unable to offer a solution to the crisis of capitalism.

There is no doubt that the current disastrous and incompetent government policies are a direct cause of the CDU's electoral defeats. But the problem of the Union parties is also that under the surface of Merkel's government, different forces are fighting for political direction. As Laschet's narrow victory over Merz in the fight for the party chair also showed, the dispute over direction in the CDU/CSU has by no means been resolved. On the contrary, it threatens to break out again and again at critical points. The Greens, on the other hand, advocate a certain capital strategy, the Green New Deal. In Baden-Württemberg, one of the most important locations of German export capital, the Kretschmann government has proved over several legislative periods that the ruling class need not fear this, but that the Greens represent their interests quite consistently, but without value-conservative plunder.

In any case, the results of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate have meant that with the federal elections two government coalitions seem possible: black-green or the traffic light. After years of the SPD wearing out its own party in the Grand Coalition, Olaf Scholz is now running for vice-chancellor under Green-Red-Gelb. The working class, however, has nothing to expect from such a "turn to the left".
While before the state elections there was still talk in the Left Party and left SPD circles of a possible Green-Red coalition, this neo-reformist fantasy has gone quiet. The Greens and the majority of social democrats never wanted to hear about this dreaming anyway. Of course, the "left" SPD leadership is also betting on a green-red-yellow government without Union parties. If the SPD, together with the trade union leaders, had tied the working class to German capital for years through the Grand Coalition, class collaboration is to be recoloured. All that remains is the Left Party and the question of whether it will abandon its illusions in government participation or continue to hope for it.

In order to change the social balance of forces and to free the working class from the double grip of social partnership and grand coalition, there is no way around an independent class politics - the struggle for an action conference and an action alliance against the capitalist crisis and pandemic on the one hand and the construction of a revolutionary alternative to reformism on the other.