Germany: Merkel's austerity rejected in fresh poll

Issue 

Voters in Germany’s largest state of 18 million people, North Rhine Westphalia, went to the polls on May 13 to reject Chancellor Angela Merkel’s politics.

This came a week after the loss for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the election of Schleswig Holstein. These results mark a rejection of the hard line austerity politics pushed across Europe by the Merkel-led coalition government.

North Rhine Westphalia has historically been an industrial centre with strong working class organisations. Since 2010, the state has been ruled by a minority government made up of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Greens.

During this time, important decisions including the budget were blocked by the CDU. This caused significant problems for the state government.

This changed on May 13 when the elections returned a clear victory to the SPD of 39.1%, representing a rise of 4.6% compared to the 2010 election.

This is the first time for 12 years that the SPD is the strongest party in government in that state.

Meanwhile the CDU lost 8.3% and is now sitting at 26.3%, its lowest result in North Rhine Westphalia since World War II.

The Greens slightly lost votes, dropping by 0.8% to 11.3%. The party entered a coalition government with the SPD. Together, both parties have 128 seats out of a total of 237.

Slightly against the trend of recent polls, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) a junior coalition partner of Merkel's centre-right government in Berlin gained 1.9% to win 8.6% of the vote.

This is a slight comfort for the FDP, which has been at risk of slipping below the 5% threshold needed for parliamentary representation. More losses for the FDP would have further weakened the party in the national government.

In line with similar gains elsewhere, the Pirate Party won 7.8%, which results in 20 seats. The Pirates are considered as a break from established politics.

Despite not having an articulated party program with clear positions, they are seen as an opportunity for democracy and transparency.

Some commentators have argued the Pirates represent a wave of de-politicisation with people turning away from political engagement rather than towards a clear vision for change.

After the elections, the key candidate of the Pirates, Joachim Paul, noted that the parliamentary caucus will not be directed by the party membership.

The socialist left party, Die Linke, lost out in the vote. Since entering parliament in the state for the first time with 5.6% in 2010, it was unable to win the 5% needed to keep its seats. It won 2.5%.

This follows it losing all seats in the election of Schleswig Holstein poll. It has been suggested that Die Linke lost 120,000 votes to the SPD and the Greens and another 80,000 to the Pirates.

The debate about the Die Linke losses is raging nationally. This comes at a time when one of Die Linke's two national leaders, Gesine Lötzsch, withdrew from her position only a few weeks ago to take care of her partner.

Since then, Die Linke's leadership speculations have dominated the mainstream media with a negative impact on the two most recent elections. The next national conference in early June will vote on Lötzsch's replacement.

Others have said the losses of Die Linke cannot be reduced to the leadership question and that the party has lost its connection to the people on the street.

Such voices say the party is no longer associated with an opposition to the politics of Merkel, nor does it represent a commitment to a future of pro-people policies.

This is despite a clearly articulated program to do so, which was supported by the party membership as recently as October 2011.

Germany’s stance in relation to European politics in the next period will be interesting to observe in the context of the election of Francois Hollande as France’s new left president and his moderate criticism of Merkel’s fiscal policies.

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