Lower Saxony (Germany) 2013

Regional elections were held in the German land of Lower Saxony on January 20, 2013. The Landtag of Lower Saxony has at least 135 members, of which 87 are elected in single-member constituencies and the rest are allocated proportionally to parties winning over 5% of the vote in the state. In the German MMP system, the proportional element (second votes) seeks to correct disparities between votes and seats which may be created by the single-member system (first vote). There are additional seats in the legislature if a party wins more single-member seats than it is entitled to in the proportional distribution of the seats. After this election, the Landtag will have 137 seats, 15 less than the outgoing legislature, elected in 2008.

Lower Saxony is the fourth most populous state in Germany. The state is fairly important in German federal politics. Not only as it produced prominent national politicians such as Gerhard Schröder, Christian Wulff, Sigmar Gabriel and Ursula von der Leyen; it is also seen by some as a good bellwether for the rest of the country. Lower Saxony is a mix of rural and urban/industrial, Protestant and Catholic. The southern region of the state is a working-class Protestant region where the Social Democrats (SPD) have traditionally been very strong, in some cases since the days of the Kaiserreich. The SPD has always performed strongly in Hanover but also industrial towns such as Salzgitter, Peine, Wolfsburg (the home of Volkswagen) and Holzminden. In this regards, it is similar to the neighboring poor, rural or working-class Protestant regions of northern Hesse or Lippe (NRW). In the north, along the coast, the industrial harbours of Wilhelmshaven and Cuxhaven Since the end of the war, the rural and isolated Protestant region of East Frisia has also been one of the SPD’s strongest regions in the whole of Germany. On the other hand, the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) often win some of their best results anywhere in Germany in the rural and devoutly Catholic Oldenburg Münsterland, around Cloppenburg and Vechta.

Lower Saxon politics used to have a strong rural, conservative and Protestant regionalist movement, which existed from 1869 until the 1950s. At the outset, a German-Hanoverian Party during the Empire and Weimar represented the dethroned House of Welf, the dynasty which ruled the Kingdom of Hanover until it was annexed by Prussia in 1866. After the war, the German Party (DP) briefly carried on with this tradition, winning a few direct seats in the first three federal elections. In large part, this rural, conservative Protestant support has gone to the CDU. Post-war, the state’s politics were also heavily influenced by the Heimatvertriebene population (ethnic Germans displaced from the east after the war), who made up around 30% of the state’s population. The heimatvertriebene‘s impact of the state’s politics nowadays is more limited, but they have played a large role in the state CDU.

The SPD governed the state between 1946 and 1955, 1959 and 1976 and most recently between 1990 and 2003. Gerhard Schröder, who became Chancellor of Germany in 1998, was the state’s Minister-President between 1990 and 1998, he was succeeded shortly thereafter by Sigmar Gabriel, who is now the SPD’s federal leader. The CDU’s Christian Wulff won the 2003 elections, defeating a worn out and unpopular SPD government. Since then, the state has been ruled by a black-yellow right-wing coalition with the liberal FDP, the same coalition which is in power federally with Angela Merkel. The black-yellow government was reelected with a reduced majority in 2008. Christian Wulff resigned to become Germany’s President in 2010, but he was forced to resign from the presidency in disgrace in 2012. The state’s current Minister-President is David McAllister, a dual British-German citizen with a Scottish mother.

McAllister is described as a rising star in the CDU and a potential successor to Angela Merkel. As premier, he is quite popular – according to the exit polls, his approval rating was 68%. Like Merkel, who is personally very popular in Germany, his government itself is considerably less popular. A bit less than 40% approved of the state government. The SPD’s top candidate was Stephan Weil, the mayor of Hanover.

Education, particularly college tuition fees (the state is one of the few in Germany to still charge tuition fees), was the most important issue for voters in this election. 45% rated it as the biggest issue, against 24% who were concerned about unemployment and 13% about the economy. Family policies and nuclear energy closed the list, with 12% and 10% respectively.

These state elections have been painted as a first test for Angela Merkel before the September 2013 federal elections, in which she will be running for a third term. It was a high stakes election for the federal government, because Lower Saxony is ruled by the same coalition as the federal government (CDU/FDP). Most said that a black-yellow victory in the state would confirm that Merkel’s victory in September is a near-certainty, but a victory by the red-green opposition could indicate a more disputed contest federally.

As is the case federally, the CDU itself remained quite popular and its vote was holding up. The danger, however, for the CDU laid with its junior partner, the liberal FDP, which has been in dire straits for some two years now. Most polls, for now, show that it is polling below the 5% threshold for seats in the Bundestag. In government, the party had hoped to push Merkel’s economic policies to the right and promote its own low-tax agenda, but it has been outmaneuvered all the way by the Machiavellian Merkel, who is quite talented at shifting her policy to meet the current mood. It has been weakened by infighting, unpopular low calibre leadership at the federal level and a series of policy blunders and miscalculations which has caused it to lose most of its 2009 support to Merkel’s CDU. In Lower Saxony, the polls had shown the CDU polling well – roughly 40% – which was about 2.5% less than what it won in 2008. On the other hand, the polls showed the FDP hovering at the 5% threshold, which meant that there was a serious risk that the FDP would not get in. If the FDP had not passed the threshold, even if the CDU itself had done quite well; the red-green (SPD-Greens) would certainly have won a majority on their own. To ward off this possibility, McAllister and the CDU more or less openly called on right-wing voters to “lend” their second vote to the FDP, to allow the party to break the threshold and retain representation. A FDP clearing the threshold and a rather healthy CDU result would, they hoped, allow McAllister to win reelection.

Turnout was 59.4%, up from 57.1% in 2008. The results were:

CDU 36.0% (-6.5%) winning 54 seats (-14)
SPD 32.6% (+2.3%) winning 49 seats (+1)
Greens 13.7% (+5.7%) winning 20 seats (+8)
FDP 9.9% (+1.7%) winning 14 seats (+1)
Linke 3.1% (-4.0%) winning 0 seats (-11)
Pirates 2.1% (+2.1%) winning 0 seats (nc)
FW 1.1% (+0.6%)  winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 1.5% (-0.9%)  winning 0 seats (nc)

David McAllister’s incumbent black-yellow coalition was defeated in a race which went down to the wire and provided for lots of nail-bitting suspense on election night. The red-green opposition won 69 seats, the incumbent black-yellow coalition won 68 seats; giving the new government a one-seat majority.

The government’s defeat can be attributed to a wide array of factors. The SPD had a clear advantage over the CDU on the important topic of education, campaigning with the Greens on a promise to do away with college tuition fees. Exit polls showed that 45% of voters preferred the SPD on education, against only 33% for the CDU. Discontent with the federal government (which is not that popular, unlike Merkel) also played a role; state elections in Germany often double as opportunities for voters to register disapproval of the federal government. However, McAllister’s strategy to save his government by encouraging his voters to loan their second votes to the FDP backfired spectacularly on him and his party.

The CDU lost over 6% of the vote compared to the 2008 election, and won 36% – which is about 4-5% less than what the final polls had predicted. The loan strategy certainly worked out very well, given that the FDP not only managed to clear the 5% threshold easily but also managed to increase its support compared to the 2008 election by nearly 2% (amusingly, 9.9% is also the best state election result for the FDP…). The FDP has been able to save its skin quite well in recent state elections (NRW and Schleswig-Holstein in 2012), but in this case it owes its miraculous result to McAllister’s strategy of propping up the FDP in a bid to save his government. The exit polls confirm that the FDP’s ‘strength’ in this election came, in large part, from CDU/right-wing voters who voted for the FDP to save the CDU/black-yellow government. 91% of FDP voters said they could just have well voted CDU, 68% (!) said that their vote for the FDP was a classic “borrowed vote”. Only a minority of the FDP’s voters cited reasons which indicates that the FDP is their natural home: only a third of the party’s voters said the FDP was the party they felt closest to. One can also notice the nature of FDP second vote support by looking at the direct votes: the FDP won 3.3% in the direct votes, which in this case is down from both 2008 (5.6%) and 2003 (4.4%).

The result of McAllister’s FDP vote loaning campaign was that the CDU’s vote fell considerably and that the FDP did way better than anybody could have predicted. Certainly, the government was sunk by other factors, but the FDP vote loaning campaign backfired badly on McAllister and the CDU. It is questionable whether or not McAllister’s strategy, regardless of its actual outcome, was actually a good strategy. If he had not said anything about propping up the FDP, would the FDP have scraped together enough voters to clear the threshold? It is quite possible. The FDP was polling 4.5% or 5% in all the final polls, which would probably have been enough for it to save face. In addition, there were enough CDU voters to pull them over the threshold if they did not do so “on their own”. If the FDP had won 5% or so, enough to retain its foothold in the legislature, the CDU would not have lost 6.5% support; making the reelection of the black-yellow government slightly more likely (though still a tough fight).

Germany’s ‘vote transfer’ analyses are always quite interesting, even if they need to be taken with a grain of salt. According to the analysis for this election, the CDU gained 49k votes from 2008 non-voters, and 10k (?!) from the Linke. They lost a non-negligible amount of support to the SPD and Greens (37k and 20k respectively), but they bled a full 104 thousand votes to the FDP – strong movement which shows the ‘loaned votes’ to the FDP. The SPD lost 6000 votes to the Pirates and a more hefty 49k to the Greens, but they gained from non-voters (90k), the CDU (37k), FDP (20k), Linke (15k) and others (7,000). This means that black-yellow was also sunk by non-negligible direct loss of support to SPD (and Greens, as noted above). The higher turnout also helped the SPD quite a bit, the analysis says that they gained 90k votes from non-voters.

The FDP lost votes to all parties (even Linke?!) but the CDU, accounting for 42,000 votes altogether – but that was more than compensated by the loaned votes (104k from CDU) and some 9,000 non-voters who voted for the FDP this year. The Linke’s most substantial loses were to the ranks of abstention – 40,000 voters who had backed the party in 2008 did not vote this year. It also lost significantly to the Greens (17k), SPD (15k) and even CDU (10k).

The SPD and the Greens had a good night, especially the Greens. The SPD were not hurt by the SPD’s troubles federally in the past few weeks, after a series of blunders and gaffes from the party’s unpopular hapless chancellor-candidate, Peer Steinbrück. Its positions on education and family policies, as well as the relative popularity of its top candidate (Stephan Weil) helped the party increase its support compared to the last election, in which the party won its worst result in any state election. Nevertheless, in a longer historical perspective, 32.6% isn’t all that great – it is lower than 2003 (33.4%, a very bad result for the party already) and worse than every other state elections besides the last one. This reflects, in part, the Greens’ success. They won 13.7%, by far their best result in a state election (the first time they break 10% in a state election as well). Their support increased by over 5 percent. Nationally, the Greens have been benefiting from the uninspiring and mediocre leadership and opposition of the SPD. The collapse of the 2012 Pirate surge should also help them recover lost support. The lingering importance of nuclear energy in German politics, post-Fukushima, has also helped the party. In Lower Saxony, they benefited from controversy surrounding the proposed nuclear waste dump site in Gorleben (they won 20.4% in that constituency).

On the other hand, the Linke, which had won 7% in the 2008 elections (on the back of the SPD, in good part), fell below the threshold and lost all its seats. This result confirms Linke’s downswing in those western states where it had entered state legislatures in 2007-2009. As noted above, many of the party’s lost voters did not turn out, others returned ‘home’ to the SPD. Its brief foray outside of East Germany (and Saarland) will have proven quite short-lived.

The Pirates won 2% and fell far short of winning seats. This result confirms that the Pirate surge, which began after the Berlin state elections in September 2011 and lasted until the summer/early fall of 2012, is over. The Pirate surge carried over to state elections in Saarland, NRW and Schleswig-Holstein in 2012, but the party’s support has since collapsed. The Pirate surge was destined to be a fad, which still lasted for a surprisingly long time. It attracted politically disoriented or ‘homeless’ voters, non-voters, first time voters and a lot of more working-class youths who did not identify with any of the parties. Its surge was not based on any concrete political ideology, platform or ideas (besides the vague appeal of direct democracy, privacy and left-libertarianism). The party’s general lack of a defined platform and policy played a major role in its collapse. In the exit polls, 83% of voters agreed with the statement that the Pirates lacked positions on important issues.

Der Spiegel has a map of the results here. As expected, the CDU did best in rural areas, but particularly the rural Catholic Oldenburg Münsterland, where the CDU won over 50% of the vote – including 57.6% in Cloppenburg and Vechta. It also performed well in the Catholic Eichsfeld, and the rural Protestant areas between large metro areas. Likewise, the SPD’s support was quite traditional. It did very well in its East Frisian and southeastern strongholds, peaking at 46.4% in Emden (East Frisia) and hovering above 40% in its working-class bases in the southeast. The SPD performed quite well in Hanover, though its performance in other cities (Göttingen, Brunswick, Wolfsburg, Hildesheim, Osnabrück, Oldenburg) was weaker because of the Greens’ strong performance. The Greens peaked at 28.5% in the university town of Göttingen, and naturally their strongest results came from cities – 25.1% in Lüneburg, 25.8% in central Oldenburg and 25.3% in central Hanover. As noted above, in the Elbe constituency (20.4%), they benefited from controversy around the nuclear waste dump site in Gorleben. The FDP’s support was strongest where the CDU’s support was also strong, with some differences (they were not as strong in the Oldenburg Münsterland, though they still did quite well). Their strongest constituencies were some peripheral suburban areas, and a rural Protestant area to the west of Bremen.

What are the implications for the federal election in September? The CDU-FDP’s defeat is unwelcome negative media coverage for the CDU and Merkel. David McAllister, like her, was a very popular premier himself but his government was unpopular and most voters were eager for a change in government. Could Merkel suffer a similar fate in September? It is more doubtful, given that the federal SPD is not in the best of shape and their current candidate (Steinbrück) doesn’t measure up to Merkel. The CDU would like to insist that its defeat in Lower Saxony was due to local state issues, and does not indicate anything for the federal election. Nevertheless, her black-yellow finds itself in a similar position. Her CDU is polling very strongly (40-42%, against 33.8% in 2009) while the FDP is polling 2-4% support, which would shut it out of the Bundestag. The consensus is that she would form a grand coalition with the SPD; a red-red-green left-wing federal coalition with the Linke still seems a long way away. The disastrous result of McAllister’s FDP vote loaning campaign will scare CDU/CSU politicians away from endorsing such deals in September; the CSU has already said that it would not encouraging vote loaning for the FDP in the Bavarian state elections this fall. The FDP had some tense closed-door meetings after the election, ultimately Rainer Brüderle will be the FDP’s top candidate for the federal election but his rival, and incumbent party chairman, Philipp Rösler will keep his spot as party leader. Is the federal election more open than expected?

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Posted on January 23, 2013, in Germany, Lower Saxony, Regional and local elections. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. An excellent overview! Yet: Eichsfeld is part of Thuringia (except few villages), Weil was rarely “relative popular”, rather boring and unknown (by a third) – and SPD was hurt by Steinbrück (~5%?), because there had been a strong lead for RedGreen in LowerSaxony for years (local elections 2011, opinion polls). As this BundesLand has always been left to national average (between 0,0 in BTW’94 and 9,3 in 2002 [Schröder!]; 4,8 in BTW’09 and 2,8 in EP’09), a lead of only 3,5 for SPD+Greens+Left over CDU+FDP could mean a narrow lead for the incumbent federal-government – but only as long as people do not realize this horrible prospect…

  2. Interesting analysis and info as always. I find it particularly interesting that the Linke was not sunk as much by traditional SPD voters returning back ‘home’, as rather its voters staying home altogether.

    That reminds me of the last national Dutch elections, where the Socialist Party lost relatively few voters to Labour, when compared with the previous actual elections, but many more to non-voters. While there will still obviously be a lot of transfers in party preference between social-democrats and socialists at times that the socialists are on an upswing in polling (for example, the Dutch Socialist Party won a lot of virtual votes in the polls for a long while before, presumably, losing them back to Labour by the time the actual elections swung around), it seems that the core constituencies of the socialist parties in these two countries exist distinctly independently, and will not vote at all rather than switch to another left-wing party when the socialists are failing to put up an appealing campaign.

    I also liked some of the interesting tidbits from your historical background: Heimatvertriebene making up as much as 30% of the population after the war, and East Frisia having been an SPD bulwark since the war – not before? Do you know what that region voted in the interbellum period? Right across the border in the Netherlands, the province of Groningen has been marked by left-wing strength since early in the 20th century. Left-wing strength there sprang from the local economic structures, with agriculture dominated by large land-owners and landless agricultural labourers working their lands (while parts of neighbouring Dutch Frisia were characterized by peat districts and impoverished peat workers); the Groninger economy shifting to proletarian industrialism in the 20th century (paper mills and the like), and high unemployment lasting throughout the time since industry’s collapse. I wonder if the background to SPD strength in East-Frisia comes from the same background.

  3. I do have a couple of comments regarding this analysis of the Niedersachsen elections as well though.

    First, there’s the question Georg Ebner raised above about whether it’s true, like you wrote, that “the SPD were not hurt by the SPD’s troubles federally”. Georg points out that “there had been a strong lead for RedGreen in LowerSaxony for years” in the polls, and obviously in the end it became a squeaker. But I’m not sure if that proves his point right, that the state’s SPD did suffer from the national party’s foibled, or not. Because the Red/Green lead in the polls was not thanks to particular high polling for the SPD.

    The best the SPD did was 35-36% in two polls last May and July, and ever since it had been polling at 32-34% (see http://www.wahlrecht.de/umfragen/landtage/niedersachsen.htm ). It ended up getting 33%, so there was no drop-off at all, really. What did change compared to polls earlier on was that the Green surge of 2011-early 2012, and the subsequent Pirate surge of the summer of 2012, ebbed away – and that the SPD did not benefit from that at all, erasing the left’s overall lead in polling. Would an SPD not suffering from a national leadership crisis have been better positioned to absorb those votes and provide the left with a greater majority? It’s more of an open question than a clear answer that yes, the state SPD suffered from its national problems or no, it didn’t.

    Second, the media coverage of the elections has understandably focused on the surprise deviations of the final results, compared to the polling, in the CDU and FDP results – it’s clear that the CDU hemorraghed ‘loan votes’ to the liberals. This did indeed, as you write, end up having a disastrous consequence for the CDU: they lost all those second votes and still didn’t save the government’s majority. What is *not* true, however, is that if there hadn’t been a loan vote campaign, “the CDU would not have lost 6.5% support; making the reelection of the black-yellow government slightly more likely”. I can’t blame you for saying so because the German media have been saying the same thing. But the election geeks at Wahlrecht.de did the calculations on what the balance of single-member seats and compensation seats would end up being at different levels of second vote transfers between CDU and FDP, and the opposite turns out to be true. It may seem counterintuitive, but if fewer CDU voters had lent their second vote to the FDP, the Red-Green majority in the state parliament would have consistently remained or even been strengthened. Only in the unlikely case that *even more* CDU voters had lent their second vote to the FDP would the black-yellow government have survived: http://www.wahlrecht.de/news/2013/landtagswahl-niedersachsen-2013.html#strategische-stimmabgabe .

  4. Hmm, one last interesting tidbit, looking at the Spiegel map: in some of the SPD bulwarks in the north, notably Cuxhaven and Friesland and perhaps Wittmund and Aurich as well, there seem to have been a non-trivial amount of ‘loan votes’ from the *SPD* to the FDP. Unexpected?

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