After barely finding time to brush themselves off after suffering huge losses in Bavaria, Germany’s governing coalition is preparing for another setback. Hesse’s state election could have huge repercussions for Merkel.
Que sera, sera, whatever will be will be,” boomed the 1950s favorite at the concert hall in the central city of Fulda on Thursday. Given the state of Germany’s federal government, the choice of soundtrack at the conservative CDU campaign event seemed rather apt — not least of all due to the appearance of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose fate may well lie in the hands of voters in the state of Hesse.
For the second time in two weeks, the German government is bracing for a yet another backlash at elections in Hesse, home to Germany’s financial hub, Frankfurt, and conservative stronghold for the past 20 years.
With record-low unemployment and a booming economy, it’s easy to wonder what the fuss is all about.
But this is no ordinary state election. As the Bavaria state election proved just two weeks ago: “It’s not the economy, stupid!”
Merkel’s conservatives in Hesse have plummeted to just 26 percent in opinion polls — down 12 percent on the last state election there in 2013.
Not only would a realization of the unforgiving figures once again bring the chancellor’s credibility as conservative party leader into question, but her close ally Volker Bouffier also stands to lose his position as Hesse’s state premier.
Hesse state premier still ‘optimistic’
While the huge losses for the Bavarian conservatives two weeks ago could be soothed at least by Merkel knowing that the months of criticism from her Bavarian brothers in arms had been to their detriment — this time she will have nowhere to hide when the blame game begins.
Tacked on to the popular dissatisfaction with Germany’s governing coalition after months of infighting over policy as well as personnel, losses of voters, as well as the state premiership, could well be the nail in the coffin for Merkel’s already weakened government.
But Hesse State Premier Bouffier isn’t ready to point the finger in Merkel’s direction just yet.
“I’m optimistic for Sunday’s result,” Bouffier told DW after his final campaign event with Merkel in Fulda. “But federal politics has certainly overshadowed local state politics in this election.”
Merkel: ‘Not a mini federal election’
This, too, was something Merkel was keen to avoid. “Not every regional election can be stylized into a mini federal election,” she told local German broadcaster Hessischer Rundfunk earlier this week. “That’s wrong. There’s a lot at stake for the people of Hesse.”
“Politics in each German state affects how Germany presents itself,” the chancellor added on Thursday, reiterating her call for voters to cast their ballots on the basis of local politics and not just federal issues.
But much to the dismay of the chancellor, federal politics will have a huge impact on Sunday’s election result in Hesse, and will likely reflect the national trend.
Political pastures new
Thousands of voters are leaving Germany’s “big-tent” parties for pastures new — largely to the Green party and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
“I’ve had enough of it,” one local told DW in Fulda. “I was a CDU voter for a long time. But the neverending debate on migration, and then the diesel scandal, and the lack of unity in the coalition — it’s making me rethink my vote on Sunday.”
To where? “The Greens,” he replied. They know what they stand for.”
Both in Hesse and at the national level, the German Green party has enjoyed a huge surge in voter support in recent months.
“The Greens are certainly profiting from the fact that the CDU/CSU and SPD can’t paint a good picture of themselves. They’re too concerned with personnel debates,” Hesse’s Green party lead candidate and incumbent State Economy Minister Tarek Al-Wazir told DW.
Read more: Hesse’s Green party candidate could spell trouble for Merkel
Should the Greens, who are currently in a coalition with the CDU in Hesse, indeed surpass the conservatives on Sunday, the CDU could even see itself left out in the cold, with the Greens possibly opting for a leftist red-red-green coalition with the SPD and Left party. And that’s despite the fact that the CDU/Green coalition is faring well in Hesse.
Far-right AfD to complete the set
The Green party isn’t the only direction disenchanted voters are heading. The AfD — coincidentally founded in Hesse as a euroskeptic party back in 2013 — looks set on Sunday to enter Hesse’s state parliament for the first time and complete the set with local MPs in all 16 German states.
Fulda local Stefan Vogel was a longtime CDU voter and party member until 2003. Earlier this year, he found his “alternative” after joining the far-right AfD.
“I’m disappointed with Merkel. She’s power-obsessed,” he told DW. “I don’t support the euro, or legislation that was pushed through like equal marriage. She practically started the migration crisis. Instead I’ve found a democratic alternative: the AfD.”
The AfD is currently polling at fourth position in Hesse with 13 percent. But with all other parties in Hesse ruling out a coalition with the far-right party, any significantly bigger result on Sunday would make building a new coalition even more difficult — regardless of who wins the mandate to do so.
But even if Merkel’s conservatives manage to avoid the realization of their dismal polling figures on Sunday — her governing coalition at the federal level won’t be out of the woods just yet.
Time ticking for loveless coalition
Also set to suffer huge losses are Hesse’s Social Democrats who are currently polling neck-and-neck with the Greens at 20 to 22 percent.
Yet another blow to Germany’s oldest political party would only strengthen calls for the SPD to break away from the government, barely half a year since the coalition was formed — albeit with a large component of the SPD kicking and screaming as their leadership signed the dotted line in March. It was never meant to be.
The SPD’s departure would not only leave the German government in tatters, but also Merkel’s credibility to hold the coalition together, and a question mark over the future of Germany’s government.
But that’s not ours to see. Que sera sera.