state of play: reds, greens and reds

The recent election in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), delivered a bitter blow to centre-left parties. The ruling Social Democrats (SPD) achieved their worst ever result: just 32.2% (-7.9%), while their Green coalition parters were reduced to 6.4% (-4.9%). For the Left Party it was an election of mixed fortunes: on the one hand the party doubled its result to 4.9%, but by narrowly falling short of the 5% minimum threshold failed to enter the parliament — again. Sometimes missing by a whisker seems worse than failing by a long shot. So what now for this election’s ‘losers’? With the help of data and survey results (carried out for broadcaster ARD by infratest dimap, in German), this blog looks at the current state of play.  

the social democrats

Most gains from: Greens and non-voters; most losses to: CDU, FDP¹The SPD in a sentence: ‘They don’t say exactly what they want to do for social justice’ (74% of the survey respondents agreed²). SPD voters’ priorities: social justice, economy and employment; voters consider SPD most competent in: social justice, family policy³.

Social justice, the economy and employment featured heavily in this election, but voters were also concerned about the situation in schools and about law and order. Both policy areas were uncomfortable for the SPD-Green government: teacher shortages have resulted in lesson cancellations, while SPD Ministerpräsident Kraft and her home affairs minister have faced criticism over their handling of the new years’ eve assaults in Cologne. Another vexed issue was coalition preferences, particularly as the Greens’ support was dwindling. The (arithmetically) feasible way to continue a centre-left government might have been a three-way alliance with the Greens and Left Party (red-red-green, or R2G). However, literally days before the election, Kraft categorically dismissed any cooperation with the Left Party, who, she declared, lived in cloud cuckoo land, would sabotage the commitment to zero deficit spending and were essentially ‘regierungsunfähig’ (unfit for government). This was a strategic move designed to reassure voters alarmed at the prospect of R2G (the Christian Democrats warned voters of a ‘double-red alert’), and to deter disgruntled social democrats or Greens from switching to the Left Party. Also, the SPD didn’t relish the prospect of having a left-wing challenger in parliament, let alone inside a coalition. However, ruling out R2G was anything but a shrewd move. Not only did it come across as a rather panicky response to pre-election polls; it also lacked credibility. Kraft had previously relied on support from the same party she now dismissed as ‘unfit’, and in the eastern state of Thuringia the SPD is junior partner to the Left Party in the ruling and presumably ‘fit’ R2G coalition.  

55% of SPD voters in NRW agreed there was ‘no real difference’ between the two largest parties

Looking ahead: Opinions are divided regarding the extent of NRW’s influence on the General Election; some see it as a litmus test for September; others say that outside NRW the result will soon be forgotten (this overlooks the sizeable portion of the electorate inside NRW). Either way, such a decisive defeat is anything but helpful. Initially many dared to believe (hope) that SPD Chancellor candidate Martin Schultz was a realistic alternative to Angela Merkel. But after three disappointing regional elections this year, and with the Greens languishing in the polls, the Social Democrats’ most realistic prospect of remaining in office after September is, yet again, as junior partner to Merkel’s CDU (Grand Coalition). Back in NRW, though, the SPD has ruled out such a partnership. Well, opposition does give the party space to refocus, although presumably the SPD would rather look like a party of government right now. But most importantly it’s at least an attempt to put some much-needed distance between the SPD and CDU both regionally and nationally; a wise move, I think, given that 55% of SPD voters in NRW agreed there was ‘no real difference’ between the two largest parties².  

the greens

Most gains from: no-one; most losses to: SPD, CDU¹The Greens in a sentence: ‘I don’t know what they stand for nationally any more, apart from protecting the environment’ (81%²). Green voters’ priorities: environment and energy, social justice; voters consider Greens most competent in: environment, family policy³.

The Greens too shouldered the punishment meted out for the schools crisis in NRW. Often regarded as a single-issue party, the Greens face a credibility challenge even on environmental policy, thanks to the continuing importance of fossil fuels for NRW’s economy. And the party won’t have appreciated comments from Baden-Württemberg’s Green Ministerpräsident, who criticised his NRW colleagues for being too idealistic. All of this adds to the impression of the Greens as a party lacking both direction and unity. 

Looking ahead: As discussed in the previous blog, election debates focused on topics such as social justice and law and order don’t favour the Greens. Coalitions are another dilemma. With prospects of an SPD-Green coalition looking less and less likely, the party has to remain open-minded about joining the conservative Christian Democrats (tried and tested in Hessen and Baden-Württemberg), possibly also in conjunction with the economic liberal FDP (a so-called Jamaica coalition), even though it would involve three parties. But then again, Baden-Württemberg’s Green-CDU coalition is considering driving bans to combat air pollution, while the Greens and FDP could occupy common ground on civil liberties. So, given that social justice isn’t a (credible) core policy for the Greens, perhaps  the ‘Greens in a sentence’ is instructive, in that the party sees a focus on environment and civil liberties (accompanied by a generous pinch of pragmatism on other issues) as the way forward. For now, anyway.

the left party

Most gains from: SPD and Greens; most losses to: AfD¹The Left Party in a sentence: ‘They don’t actually solve anything but at least tell it like it is’ (72%²). Left Party voters’ priorities: Social justice, school and education; voters consider the Left Party most competent in: social justice, affordable housing³


The Left Party went head to head against the right-wing populist AfD in areas blighted by high unemployment, poverty and growing disengagement from elections. Left Party campaigners focused hard on these neighbourhoods, knocking on doors and asking people ‘where it hurt’. Their efforts were rewarded with voter share in double figures in some targeted wards; another positive outcome was that the party managed to stem the loss of support to non-voters. On the negative side, voter share was still lost to the AfD, who continued to attract support from the unemployed, workers and former non-voters. 

Looking ahead: Without parliamentary representation in NRW, the Left Party misses out on a much-needed boost ahead of the election. However, it could still benefit from the Greens’ misfortunes (the party has a clear anti-militarist position and often performs well in traditionally Green, middle-class urban areas). Also, although the Left faces a fierce fight with the AfD for the same core constituencies, the latter is currently riddled with internal battles. Much also depends on whether the election debate will favour the Left Party, which campaigns strongly on social justice, democracy and antimilitarism, but struggles to be heard on its pro-immigration stance. 

in a nutshell: 

All three centre-left parties are facing a real struggle in the General Election, and the recent elections have done them few favours. While the Greens and Left Party have their work cut out raising their profiles on distinct policy areas (and countering the AfD), the SPD is in the unenviable but arguably self-inflicted position of having to convince voters that it offers an alternative, both in terms of policy and to Merkel herself — despite having spent so long supporting her party in government. And as it stands, which coalition appears to be most likely? Another Grand Coalition.


¹ For an overview of all parties’ gains and losses:

² Participants were asked to choose from a list which statement most closely reflected their opinion of that party. See the statements (all parties, in German) here

³ See here for overview of top issues for voters of all parties and here for statements on parties’ areas of competence (German).

image credit: meditations @ pixabay


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