Some Reflections on the Lower Saxony State Elections

As promised, here are my remarks and reflections about the Lower Saxony state elections, somewhat belated, because I was tired and busy and because the election result frankly baffled me. Because to be honest, I fully expected the conservative CDU under minister president David McAllister (son of a German mother and Scottish father, hence the name) to continue to govern, though they would probably have to look for a new coalition partner due to the weakness of the liberal (in the European sense – the US calls this sort of people Libertarian) party FDP. In fact, I strongly suspected that the end result would be a so-called big coalition between the two big parties CDU and SPD, since a CDU/Green coalition will so not work in Lower Saxony.

Okay, so that’s not how it went. The full result with graphics is here. Which proves two things:

  1. Strategic voting is shit, particularly since you do not know how many other people had the same idea as you.
  2. I will never understand the postwar artificial construct (because that’s what it is. There was no Lower Saxony prior to 1950) that is Lower Saxony. I may live here by accident, because I happen to live 5 kilometers from the state border between Bremen and Lower Saxony, but I don’t get Lower Saxony and I never have.

Warning: There is lots of political neepery about the German political system in general and the Lower Saxony state elections in particular under the cut, so don’t click unless you care.

Now the German voting system used at the federal level as well as in most of the states gives every voter two votes. One vote is for a specific candidate. Whichever candidate gets the most votes wins. The second vote is for a party. Seats are accorded proportionally to the percentage of votes every party got with a cutoff at five percent of the vote. This prevents the problems associated with pure majority systems like the US and UK, where small parties often have little to no chance of winning seats in parliament, where your vote is “lost” if your candidate doesn’t win and where you needn’t bother voting at all, if you happen to live in a district that majorly favours a different party than you do (which has applied to me for almost all my voting life). In short, it’s a good system. It may sound complicated, but it’s really not and the ballot explains what you have to do.

However, the system also allows for strategic voting, which can backfire badly as it did on Sunday. Because with very rare exceptions (e.g. a couple of districts in East Berlin which reliably vote for a Left Party candidate), direct candidates of the smaller parties (FDP, Greens, Left and Pirates) never win a seat. So giving your direct vote to the SPD or CDU candidate is usually the best bet, unless you happen to hate both of them for some reason. But since the party vote is accorded proportionally, it makes sense to vote for a smaller party with your party vote. And sometimes, if a small party is in danger of not gaining the five percent of votes necessary to enter parliament, but you want the small party there, because they are the coalition partner of the party you favour, it can make sense to give your party vote to the smaller coalition partner rather than to the party you normally support. And this is what happened on Sunday.

For the liberal party FDP, the smaller coalition partner both of David McAllister’s government in Hannover and Angela Merkel’s federal government in Berlin, is in trouble. Now the hardcore FDP supporters make up between 3 and 4 percent of the electorate, i.e. not enough to get into parliament. So they need undecided voters and case by case voters like myself. Normally, this isn’t much of a problem. However, of late the FDP has been in trouble and got itself kicked out of several state parliaments due to – sorry, but there’s no other way to say this – incompetence at the national leadership level.

Deutsche Welle has some more info, including an attempt at explaining the odd results from a German political scientist. This opinion piece is well worth reading as well.

Now you should know that I’m not a CDU voter. The CDU appeals mainly to rural Christians, traditional family people and conservative upper middle class types and that’s not me. I have voted for them on occasion, but then I have voted for every one of the six democratic parties currently in a German federal or state parliament (i.e. CDU, SPD, FDP, Greens, Left Party and Pirates) at some occasion. I’m the political system’s worst nightmare, a voter with no party loyalty who votes as it seems best to me for the given situation (and I voted for two different parties in this election). I guess this is also because I don’t neatly fit into any party’s core demographic, as they define themselves.

However, even though I’m not his core demographic, I liked David McAllister. Among the usual bunch of unlikable jerks we got as minister presidents in Lower Saxony (and they were uniformly unlikable, regardless of party), he was the best so far. He is fairly young, he’s handsome (by politician standards), he’s likable, he’s got a background that is more international than the usual provincial politicians we get around here, he’s not a jerk. Now I did not vote for his party, because I disagree with several of their policies and I dislike a couple of members of McAllister’s cabinet, mainly the three “Männer” (the secretaries Schünemann, Althusmann and Busemann, all of whom could not even win their seats back). Nonetheless, I liked David McAllister and so did a lot of people whom I wouldn’t have pegged for typical CDU voters either.

As for David McAllister’s opponent, Stephan Weil of the socialdemocratic party SPD, I have no opinion on him at all, because Stephan Weil was basically the invisible candidate. I know next to nothing about the man except that he was mayor of Hannover for the past couple of years before seeking the office of minister president. And I didn’t even know that Weil was mayor of Hannover until it was mentioned in the media maybe a week or two before the election, at which point I went, “Wait a minute? So Herbert Schmalstieg finally retired?” (after a whopping 34 years in office, longest serving mayor in German history). Also until maybe two or three weeks before the election, I would have been hard-pressed to tell you the name of the SPD candidate for minister president. There were no campaign posters of him at all until around Christmas. And even now, I still had to google to get the Weil’s name right. I could pass the man on the street and would not recognize him.

Now I am someone who is interested in politics, regularly follows the news and is reasonably well-informed. Yet somehow this man who wanted to be elected minister president of the state where I reside managed to remain totally below my radar. This is, frankly speaking, evidence of a horribly misdirected campaign. I might even have voted for Mr Weil and his party, had I known what precisely his political aims were. I’m certainly closer to him politically than to David McAllister and the CDU. And indeed I agree with his decision to abolish university tuition fees in Lower Saxony (not sure about his school policies, but then I’m simply sick of every new state government changing school policies just because they can). However, Stefan Weil and his party not just completely failed to communicate their political aims to me, they even failed to make me notice their candidate. Okay, so Weil and McAllister did a US-style TV debate on a local TV station. But I don’t watch TV candidate debates.

It’s not just me, either. Several people mentioned that they didn’t know zip about the SPD candidate. And if you look at this direct comparison between David McAllister and Stephan Weil, McAllister leads by a pretty good margin. Add to this that the SPD currently seems in the process of committing suicide on the national level, due to Peer Steinbrück, their designated challenger to Angela Merkel in the federal elections, making one political blunder after another, and my initial reaction, when the first election results started coming in, was, “Wait a minute, someone actually voted for Mr Nobody?”, quickly followed by, “Who voted for this guy? Cause I don’t know anybody who said he would vote for him, including longtime SPD voters.” A glance at the regional election results published in my local paper confirmed this impression. Cause there were CDU wins all around.

Now take a look at this map of Lower Saxony divided into voting districts. Red is SPD, black is CDU by the way. The white blob in the middle is Bremen, which is independent. What you see is a whole sea of black with some red islands corresponding to Oldenburg, Osnabrück, Cuxhaven and Lüneburg, which makes sense, because the SPD traditionally does better in cities. Oldenburg, Cuxhaven and Lüneburg have universities and student populations, too. Meanwhile, there are two larger red areas, one in the South East corresponding to the Hannover, Braunschweig, Göttingen area, and another in the North West, corresponding to the Ostfriesland and Emsland area. Now it absolutely makes sense to me that the SPD would win in Hannover (Stephan Weil is their mayor, after all) as well as Braunschweig, Göttingen, etc… However, the red blob in the North West baffles me, because Ostfriesland and Emsland are rural and heavily Catholic areas and Catholics traditionally vote CDU, as do farmers and fishermen (because they fear an SPD/Green coalition). So I have no idea why Ostfriesland and Emsland voted as they did. Probably local factors like a really popular (or unpopular) candidate.

My own district (the long blob just south of Bremen), meanwhile, is black, which isn’t much of a surprise. The CDU usually wins our district and this time around a lot of people had issues with the local SPD candidate, while the CDU candidate was a popular guy who hit all the right notes and was a member of all the right clubs. Indeed, I wonder whether that’s why the SPD didn’t even try to campaign this time around. Maybe they didn’t bother because they knew they’d never win this district. Though that doesn’t make me feel appreciated as a voter – and even if they lose the district, there still is the proportional party vote.

So what does this mean for Angela Merkel and her government? For starters, this definitely isn’t the Twilight of Merkel, even if some international commentators may try to spin it that way. Because though the rest of the world – well, at least Greece, Spain, Portugal and Paul Krugman – may hate Ms. Merkel, she is very popular in Germany and has great approval ratings. Plus, her designated challenger Peer Steinbrück is an uncharismatic blunderer. Finally, Lower Saxony is not Germany, even though plenty of people confuse local, state and federal elections and punish local or state politicians for faults at the federal level or vice versa. Never mind that Stephan Weil’s majority is as narrow as can be – he’s got a one vote majority in the Lower Saxony state parliament. Several other politicians – most notably including Weil’s fellow SPD politicians Heide Simonis and Andrea Ypsilanti* couldn’t even get elected with such narrow minorities in their respective states.

However, a notable consequence of the Lower Saxony state elections is that this changes the majority in the Bundesrat, the second chamber of the German legislative, which is made up of representatives of the states. Wikipedia has more details, but basically every of the 16 states gets a certain number of votes based upon its population, votes which are accorded to whichever party or combination of parties rules said state. States ruled by the CDU (alone or in coalition with the FDP) vote for the Merkel government, states ruled by some combination of the SPD, Greens and the Left (and the SSW, party of the Danish minority in Schleswig-Holstein, but never mind them) generally vote against the government, while big coalition states (i.e. ruled by SPD and CDU together) abstain. At the moment, Bavaria, Hessen and Saxony (only minister president of an ethnic minority, the Slavic people of the Sorbs) vote for the government, Baden-Württemberg (only Green minister president, took over an iron-tight secure CDU state due to disageements over a railway station), Brandenburg, Bremen, Hamburg, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Rheinland-Pfalz and Schleswig-Holstein vote for the SPD and against Angela Merkel, while Berlin, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Saarland, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia abstain. Until last week, the six votes from Lower Saxony went to the CDU and FDP, i.e. to Angela Merkel’s coalition. Now they will go to the opposition. And this will make it much more difficult for Angela Merkel’s government to pass laws, provided the opposition uses its ability to block laws in the Bundesrat. And knowing them, they will. Hell, there already is a huge battle over a “support families” law, even though ever party claims to support families.

*It’s no coincidence that both politicians are women. The SPD hasn’t been a welcoming party for women at least since Gerhard Schröder.

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