Politics

What Happened in Germany on 13th March 2016?

“The Baden-Württemberg flying green carpet has landed in the middle of society.” These were the words uttered by Winfried Kretschmann in his speech following the victory of the Greens in the German land, a remarkable feat given the odds against them and the current trends playing in favour of the far-right. However, elsewhere in the country, the picture is somewhat different…

Roughly 20% of German citizens turned out to elect their representatives for regional Parliaments and Governments on Sunday 13th March 2016. In Baden-Württemberg, 10.7 million inhabitants have been governed for the last 5 years by the first ever Greens/Social Democrat (SPD) coalition. In Rheinland–Pfalz, the SPD/Greens coalition was in charge of 4 million inhabitants over the period 2011 – 2016. In Sachsen-Anhalt, part of the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany), 2.2 million inhabitants had chosen a grand coalition (Große Koalition) of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the SPD from 2006, with Greens at 7% back in Parliament since 2011.

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What the results tell us

The election campaigns mirrored in many ways what has been shifting German public opinion for the past 9 months. The results will undoubtedly impact the German political landscape – its discourse, its legislative and its executive priorities. At the same time, these elections kick-started a calendar of 18 months of successive regional elections, culminating with federal elections in the autumn of 2017. The overarching topics of the three most recent regional elections in question focused on the refugee crisis and the never-ending debate on German immigration policy(ies) – or lack thereof.

The results suggest that a majority of the electorate want a political leadership that is steadfast and willing to take charge of the problems of the day, calmly and clearly in its intent.

The paradox of the results is that this does not mean, notwithstanding meaningful analysis, that the vast majority of the German electorate favours Chancellor Merkel’s policy of “Willkommenskultur” (welcoming culture) and the famous slogan “Wir schaffen das” (we can manage) – her version of Obama’s “Yes we can”. Whilst it is a fact that the winning parties in Baden-Württemberg (Greens) and Rheinland–Pfalz (SPD) have been in line with the Chancellor’s reading and strategies, in Sachsen-Anhalt, the Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) made it very clear that they did not support her management of the influx of refugees to the country. In Sachsen-Anhalt, an absolute majority of voters rejected her handling of the situation.

The other tangibles that will change the political arithmetic are that the traditional CDU/SPD mandate majorities don’t exist as coalition options in Baden-Württemberg and in Sachsen-Anhalt.

The junior partners in the three governing regional governments have been trounced: in Baden-Württemberg and in Sachsen-Anhalt the SPD lost about 50% of its electorate, landing in 4th place behind by the AfD. In Rheinland–Pfalz, the Greens lost 66% of the vote. Much more than a manifestation of dissatisfaction, this may be the expression of the sovereign putting his trust in the ruling Minister Presidents, though the AfD vote is the articulation of an overall feeling of insecurity about the direction that German politics is heading.

Europe – more specifically, the EU – was part of the debate, where it was blamed for the failure of being identified as the only place to successfully address the migration flux and EU external borders. Specifically, in all his public addresses, Winfried Kretschmann has argued that behind all the crises looms the historical danger of the failure of the EU as the continental “civilisational” project and that this must be tackled if we are to continue to live in peace and prosperity.

The AfD surge: a party to be reckoned with?

In 2013, disgruntled economy professors, conservative politicians and business men and women initiated “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD). They primarily wanted a fundamental alternative to the German government’s management of the Euro crisis. They were advocating a Grexit, the end of the Euro as a currency and a return to a national monetary authority, demanding an end to the never-codified EU solidarity premise that makes, in their eyes, Germany the “paymaster” of the EU.

The success of the AfD in the European Parliamentary elections and the Brandenburg, Saxony and Thüringen regional elections allowed them to be represented in four parliaments. Soon after that, an all-out fight broke out in the AfD on what path they should follow, focusing on an anti-Euro and neo-liberal economic policies and social conservative priorities versus a German nationalist anti-Muslim, anti-urban, anti-modernity, authoritarian, populist resentment strategy. After having its neo-liberal/conservative wing kicked out of the party in June 2015, the AfD appeared in various polls at 5% and they seemed to be on the way out of the German political sphere. We were convinced that this would soon be forgotten; back to business as usual. Then came the refugee crisis, which, in the words of the AfD leadership, was a gift to the party. This allowed AfD to embark upon a populist field trip, making inroads in their opposition parties’ electorates and even managing to motivate traditional non-voters to go to the ballot boxes.

The AfD succeeded in the last three elections double-digit results, and in Sachsen-Anhalt, one in four people cast them a vote, making the AfD the second-largest party in parliament.

The German political world is slowly grasping (but much later than the electorate) the notion that Germany has reached the end of the post-WWII area and that it will redefine Germany’s self-understanding, both in the EU and globally. The “normalisation” of Germany also means that the two hegemonic “Volksparteien”, the CDU and the SPD, are facing trends of concurring erosion of their traditional voting basis. Whereas the SPD has, for the last few decades, been facing challenges from the Greens and later from Die Linke, the CDU has always found solace that to the right to them there was no room for another party. Angela Merkel for the last 15 years has as CDU chairwoman embarked the party on a modernisation course that has left the more conservative wing of the CDU out in the cold. The CDU can no longer master the splits of being for and against the EU; to be both in favour of immigration and against immigrants; to accept modern, urban lifestyles and at the same time push for ‘traditional’ family values, to be the only “normal” one, etc.

Concerning the longevity of AfD, the jury is still out and the coming months will tell us of the viability of the party. What seems clear to me however, is that Germany will have a right-wing populist nationalist party right of the CDU and that this will change the way Germany is governed and by whom. Welcome to the new normality!

Mixed results for Greens

For “Bündnis 90/Die Grünen”, the Greens, the elections have been a mixed bag. In Rheinland–Pfalz, the party barely made the 5% threshold needed for a continued parliamentary presence. They did not manage to hold on to the electorate that voted for them after Fukushima. They will, in all probability, be part of the next regional government in a coalition with the Liberals (FDP), under the leadership of the SPD Minister-Präsidentin (MP) (Governor) Malu Dreyer.

In Sachsen-Anhalt, the Greens succeeded under testing circumstances to remain in parliament. The reality of the Sachsen-Anhalt parliamentary representation being what it is, the Greens will most probably be part of a Sachsen-Anhalt government presided over by the CDU MP, Reiner Haseloff, in a never-tried-before coalition with the SPD.

Then there is Baden-Württemberg and Winfried Kretschmann. That’s a story on its own. Baden-Württemberg is the richest region in Germany and is (or was) the heartland of the CDU. The overwhelming majority of towns and villages, their Mayors, and all the District Administrators are CDU members. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) had governed the area for 58 years without interruption, mostly with an absolute majority, to the satisfaction of large parts of the citizens. For the CDU, Baden-Württemberg was the CDU and the CDU was Baden-Württemberg! It was almost like a law of nature until March 2011.

And while Baden-Württemberg is the birthplace and the capital of the German automobile industry, the largest European software company, and of most industrial and engineering development/patents in Europe, it is also the birthplace of the German Green party (Die Grünen). The Baden-Württemberg Green party was created in September 1979 and Die Grünen Germany in March 1980.

Explaining Baden-Württemberg: An astonishing feat

“The carpet may be flying but we keep our feet firmly on the ground”. These were the words uttered by Winifried Kretschmann in March 2011 when voters made the Greens the senior partner in the first ever Green/Social Democrat government coalition. Kretschmann became the Minister President and Governor of Baden-Württemberg. The catastrophe of Fukushima certainly played a role in the result back then, but even as early as November 2010, the polls were indicating that in Baden-Württemberg change was in the air. The CDU Minister President was extremely unpopular and his conflict management of the Stuttgart central train station (Stuttgart21) and repeated clashes showed how little the CDU had taken notice of its own voters shifting mood.

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Winfried Kretschmann and the Baden-Württemberg Green party’s “overnight” success was the result of hard work and a steep and constant learning curve. Decades of local council/municipal participation, 35 years of parliamentary presence (most of it as an opposition party) had shaped how the Greens act, understand their political mandate and govern today.

In the 1980s, the entire political class looked at Die Grünen as a glitch on the Parliament’s radar screen, soon to be forgotten. It was a long and a hard ride. It took 30 years of opposition before the Greens were given the chance to demonstrate their executive talents. But from the very first day Die Grünen were elected to the Baden-Württemberg Parliament, they had the ambition to take on the responsibility of governing to “accept the world as it is, yet constantly try improving it”. Die Grünen promised only what they would and could deliver and explained how it would be financed. And every time they found themselves warming the opposition benches, the Parliamentary Green group produced legislative proposals, as if they were going to be adopted and implemented.

When analysts and commentators who believe they have identified a Baden-Württemberg exceptionalism fail, they all end up pointing to Winfried Kretschmann and to his popularity as the key to the success. But seldom do they acknowledge what has been accomplished. The most called upon explanation goes like so: Winfried Kretschmann is a passionate handyman; he is member of a sporting rifle and pistol club and a trophy winning marksman; he is himself an avowed catholic, a member of the German catholic central committee and a conservative; and, therefore, is very appealing to the conservative electorate. Quod erat demunstrandum!

The success and the overall acceptance of the Minister President and the persona of Winfried Kretschmann are remarkable. He is the most popular Minister President in Germany. No, the Greens would not and could not have won the 2016 election the way they did without him.

Kretschmann promised that his decisions would always focus on the best interests for Baden-Württemberg. His government was going to implement a different administration style after the previous autocratic Minister President reigned and fostered a governmental culture of listening to what the people had to say. The government would factor in those voices in the decision making process and it did so.

The Kretschmann factor

Kretschmann’s popularity is not rooted in his conservatism but essentially in his incarnation of Jurgen Habermas’ constitutional patriotism. During the 2011 campaign Kretschmann said many times that he had no private ambition to be Minister President but if given the nomination he would respectfully accept the charge and the responsibility coming with it. Winfried Kretschmann is a cautious mindful personality. A former high school teacher, he has kept the capacity a good teacher has, to explain complex matters, so almost everyone will listen and understand what he has to say. His leadership style is very much that of a down-to-earth, has a common-sense approach to problem solving and is driven by “pragmatic humanism”.

For example, Kretschmann convened a refugee summit a year before the number of refugees started to grow so rapidly, as it has now become a massive logistic challenge and was allowed to become a political problem. Though he never wavered his moral imperative and the constitutional obligation to help the war and political asylum seekers, he admitted openly that he sometimes doubted if he was finding the right answers. He also conceded that as there was no blue print for the present situation, he had to play by ear more than he cared for, but as such is what comes with the territory. Additionally, he is a staunch supporter of Chancellor Merkel’s course as the only one to overcome the current EU conundrum on the administration of the European external borders and migration policies.

This has reassured a somewhat unsettled and scared electorate. Many traditional CDU voters voted for the Greens so Kretschmann would remain at the helm in Baden-Württemberg. In the last ten years, one million additional voters have chosen Die Grünen.

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Kretschmann will most probably remain Minister President, but this time probably in the first so called kiwi coalition, the most improbable and incredible set up: Die Grünen/CDU. The day after the election, a journalist asked Kretschmann if he owed his success to his betrayal of the very doctrines Die Grünen stand for. He replied: “Dogmas are like streetlights in the dark. They give light and orientation, but only a drunk clings on to them”.

Die Grünen are the strongest party in Baden-Württemberg: they are a reformist force; its electorate and they themselves are part of the democratic system that they are still trying to improve.

To grasp the dimension of such a feat, one should know that the Baden-Württemberg population is as large as or larger than the population of 19 of the 28 EU member states. Just for one moment, imagine what the EU might be if Greens could match what happened in Baden-Württemberg!

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What Happened in Germany on 13th March 2016?

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