Germany's fragile coalition braced for upset with Greens and far right set for more gains
The Observer Germany Germanyâs fragile coalition braced for upset with Greens and far right set for more gains
Voters in the bellwether central state of Hesse seem keen to punish Angela Merkel at the ballot box
Every week for 30 years, sausage seller Alexand ra MÃ¼ller has set up her stall in the shadow of an ornate baroque church in the central German city of Fulda. She was here on a bright September day five years ago, when thousands thronged the nearby university square hoping to glimpse the then wildly popular Angela Merkel. And she was here last week, when the chancellor appeared in Fulda again, this time speaking behind closed doors to a few hundred diehard supporters.
âMerkel will helicopter in, talk to the big businessmen for an hour, and then leave,â said MÃ¼ller, 50. âAll the while Iâll be standing here, trying to sell my sausages. Merkel should come to the market. Iâm looking for someone thatâs nearer to the people. But what do I know? Iâm just a sausage seller.â
MÃ¼ller might swear sheâs not important, but on Sunday, she and fellow voters in the central state of Hesse have the power to deliver a second electoral upset within a fortnight to Germanyâs embattled ruling parties, potentially plun ging both into fresh crises. The regional election is seen as decisive for the future of Merkelâs rickety coalition government.
Last-minute polling showed support plummeting for both her Christian Democrat Union (CDU) and coalition partner the Social Democrats (SPD) in a swing state traditionally seen as a bellwether for national politics.
Both parties were predicted to drop 10 points each since the stateâs last regional election in 2013. Such a trouncing would come on the heels of a disastrous result in Bavaria that was widely seen as a protest against the failings of the Berlin government.
âNone of the parties are there for us,â said MÃ¼ller, who has voted for both CDU and SPD in the past, but was still undecided. âWhat should I do? I have to vote, itâs my duty to stop the far right getting into power. But I also know I wonât be heard. I can vote for whoever I like; the politicians will still do whatever they want.â
Hesse, home to German yâs financial centre, Frankfurt, has been governed by CDU-led coalitions for the past two decades. But polls have the party nosediving to 28%, a result that would end the stateâs CDU-Green coalition and leave a question mark over the future of CDU state premier and close Merkel ally Volker Bouffier.
With tensions running high in the CDU, mutinous members have implied that if Bouffier falls, it may cost the chancellor vital votes when she stands for re-election as party leader at its conference in early December. But Merkel, who joined Bouffier on the campaign trail last week, was at pains to play down the significance of the regional vote for her party, government and chancellorship.
âHesse, and what happens here, is being watched and considered from far beyond Germanyâs borders,â Merkel told supporters on Thursday in Fulda. âI want to point out once again that on Sunday the vote is about Hesse. Afterwards weâll talk again about Berlin.â
But that message doesnât seem to have trickled down to voters in Fulda, where the CDU secured just under 50% in 2013. Some say they relish the chance to show their displeasure with Merkelâs coalition, which has limped from crisis to crisis since assuming power in March.
âFor me this will be a protest vote against all this nonsense in Berlin,â said Heiko Becker, 48, a lifelong swing voter now leaning towards the anti-immigrant Alternative fÃ¼r Deutschland (AfD). âThings are good for us in Hesse, but no one c ares about that. Itâs all about going against Merkel nowadays. Lots of people are switching their votes.â
As in Bavaria, Hesseâs booming economy and low unemployment figures have not stopped voters ebbing away to the far right. Latest polls put the AfD on 12%, behind the top three parties, but enough to easily enter the state parliament for the first time. Yet as in Bavaria, it is the Green party that is set to make the biggest gains. Polls suggest the party has doubled its support in Hesse over five years, putting it neck and neck in joint second place with the ailing SPD on 20%.
âWeâre definitely profiting from the weakness of the grand coalition,â said Marion Neumeister, head of Fuldaâs Green party office, adding she had noticed a marked increase in voters actively approaching her asking to be persuaded to vote Green. âWe hardly have to say anything. Look at what theyâre doing in Berlin, theyâre driving people towards us.â
The Greens are now polling at their highest nationwide since Japanâs Fukushima disaster in 2011. In the past, said Neumeister, local party members joked darkly that theyâd only see such highs again if another nuclear reactor melted down. âNow we have our meltdown,â said Neumeister, eyeing the latest polls. âThe CDU meltdown.â
But disillusion with stagnant Berlin politics isnât only a problem for the CDU. For Hesseâs SPD, the coalitionâs record is proving just as awkward.
âIt seems a large part of the population doesnât want this grand coalition any more,â said Sebastian Busch, who is standing for the SPD in Hesseâs western district of Rheingau. âIn the long term, we have to bring people a vision of a future in which one can trust politicians to do what they say they will.â
The reckoning could come sooner rather than later. If the SPD is overtaken by the Greens in Hesse, party leader Andrea Nahles could be forced to step down. In the most extreme case, such a result could shock the SPD into leaving Merkelâs coalition, which would almost certainly trigger new elections.
âComing in under 20% or behind the Greens would be two very strong symbols for the SPD, which is still reeling from its worst-ever result in Bavaria,â said Thorsten Faas, professor of political science at Berlinâs Free University. âThe opponents of the grand coalition would use this to say we have to get out. Thereâs just no conviction, no enthusiasm for this project in large areas of the SPD.â
But however miserable it is in the current government, the SPDâs dismal nationwide polling figures means the party has little to gain from voluntarily forcing an election.
âThat would be the worst outcome for the SPD,â said Andrea RÃ¶mmele, a communications professor at Berlinâs Hertie School of Governance. Merkel, she added, was likely to remain safe if the CDU could keep power in Hesse under a three-way coalition with the liberal Free Democratic Party and the Greens.
âThe only way Angela Merkel wonât come out OK is if Bouffier doesnât remain state premier in Hesse,â said RÃ¶mmele. âThe way the polls are now, thatâs not likely. Weâll have a government soon in Bavaria and a government in Hesse, and that will be the end of the conversation for now.âTopics
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