Watching closely: German Local Elections and CDU free falling

On Sunday, March 14th, local elections took place in two German regions of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate. The election marks a historic loss for Angela Merkel’s center-right Chrisitan Democratic Union (CDU) party, as the environmentalist Green Party took the former, and center-left Social Democrats won the latter state. ​”To say it very clearly, this isn’t a good election evening for the CDU,”​ ​party’s general secretary, Paul Ziemiak, emphasized. “We would have liked different, better results.” In Baden-Württemberg, exit polls put the Greens at 31%, its highest results in any local election, with the CDU at 24% and in Rhineland-Palatinate, the SPD led with 34.5% with the CDU getting 26% of the vote. ​Baden-Wuerttemberg will continue to be run by incumbent Winfried Kretschmann, who has been in office since 2011; he will either choose to maintain the current coalition government with the CDU or build an alternate coalition with SPD and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP). Meanwhile, in Rhineland-Palatinate, the popular SPD state premier, Malu Dreyer, will continue governing, with a likely coalition with the FDP and Green Party, who were increasingly popular in the election (more than doubling their score).​

Figure 1:​ ​Outcome of the Baden-Wuerttemberg local elections, March 14, 2021
Figure 2:​ ​Outcome of the Rhineland-Palatinate local elections, March 14, 2021

The loss comes as federal elections are approaching this fall

The results come as a shock as both wealthy regions are frequently a bastion for the conservatives. In January, the pre-election surveys displayed the CDU with 32% of the vote, ahead of the Greens at 30% in Baden-Wuerttemberg.​ ​In contrast, the results displayed the CDU at a mere 23 percent, down from 27 percent five years ago, a similar trend to that of Rhineland-Palatinate, where the ​CDU placed second with 26 percent of votes, down from almost 32 percent in the previous regional election​. ​Markus Söder, leader of the Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU), CDU’s sister party, noted that “The state elections struck deep at the heart of the union of the CDU and CSU,” ​ ​as the the two states are home to one fifth of Germany’s population, and thus are vital electoral positions in the general election. The loss comes as federal elections are approaching this fall. ​Superwahljahr, ​the​ super election, is taking place on 26th of September, 2021. Angela Merkel, who has won the last four consecutive elections, will no longer run for re-election, leaving the CDU to yearn for a new candidate.

Wolfgang Schaeuble, the speaker of Germany’s parliament and a prominent member of the CDU, claimed that the governor’s personalities were the vital factor in the elections’ outcome,​ making the selection for the next face of the party more difficult. A potential CDU candidate from the CSU, Markus Söder, is particularly hit by the defeat in his state, as it diminishes his likelihood of bidding for the chancellorship to replace Merkel. The spectators associate CDU’s losses with the wider dissatisfaction about the poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. Although Merkel was initially praised for her approach to the first wave of the virus, the stagnant vaccination program, rise in cases despite lockdown, and lack of rapid testing development have caused widespread frustration. German political scientists, ​Konstantin Voessing, noted that the election “gives us a good glimpse into the state of affairs of the German electorate.”

The recent ‘mask scandal’ has amplified the permeating discontent of the government

The recent ‘mask scandal’ has amplified the permeating discontent of the government. CDU lawmaker Nikolas Löbel and his counterpart from the Bavarian sister party, George Nüsslein, were accused of receiving bribes in exchange for brokering face mask procurement deals.​ In February, Nüsslein was under investigation for corruption charges, alleging that he accepted 600,000 euros to lobby for a mask supplier, while Löbel made 250,000 euro commission as an intermediary in the mask contracts. The two, along with lawmaker Hauptmann, stepped down in connection with the scandal. While a portion of the votes was cast in through mail-in ballots prior to the scandal, Paul Ziemiak has remarked that the scandal “weighed heavily” on the conservatives, as it bred widespread public distrust in the party. Since weariness has increased over Germany’s extended lockdown, the scandal has caused further outrage from the German public. Commentators have dubbed it as the conservatives’ “biggest crisis” since the 1990s, a fair assessment considering the election results.​ The losses in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate further damage the reputation of ​Armin Laschet​, the newly elected CDU leader. Although he was bearing well in polls, the recent defeat and scandals have made his bid for chancellorship more difficult, with a growing reputation “for complacency and listlessness.” ​The party’s approval has fallen from 40% popularity in June 2020 to 33 percent in March 2021, further harming re-election potential. The diminishing approval rating and decline in viable chancellor candidates leave the Christian Democrats in a precarious position for the upcoming ​Superwahljahr, ​where Merkel will no longer be able to save them.

The Editor: Miriam Yakobashvili

Miriam Yakobashvili is an international relations BA student at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. She has focused on research in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, previously interning at the U.S. Ukraine Foundation and researching for a University of Georgetown Professor. Speaking four languages, English, Russian, Spanish, and Georgian, Miriam’s research interests vary with writings concerning Kurdistan Regional Government and occupied regions around the world. 

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