German state elections show populism in decline on left and right

A bellwether election in Germany’s most populous state has shown a further eroding of support for populist parties on the far ends of the political spectrum, thrown up questions over the pulling power of the chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and entrenched the growing authority of the Greens.

The centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of the incumbent state premier, Hendrik Wüst, emerged as the strongest party on the night in North Rhine-Westphalia, with 35.7% of the vote, while the Social Democratic party (SPD) came second with its worst postwar result in the former stronghold state in the industrial west.

With the liberal Free Democratic party (FDP) halving its vote and the Green party gaining 11.8 percentage points to emerge as kingmaker for the influential state’s next coalition government, a power-sharing agreement between the conservative and ecological parties is the most likely outcome.

Electoral trends in North Rhine-Westphalia mirrored those the previous weekend in Germany’s northernmost state, Schleswig-Holstein, where the CDU and Greens also managed to score significant gains and are expected to continue governing in a three-way coalition with the FDP. Here too, the SPD achieved its worst result of the postwar era, with only 16% of the vote.

In a marked contrast to the recent French election showing the far right and far left increasing in strength, both German state polls accentuated an erosion of support for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the leftwing Die Linke. The AfD saw losses of two percentage points in North Rhine-Westphalia and dropped below the 5% electoral threshold in Schleswig-Holstein, while the left party will be represented in neither state parliaments.

Accusations of appeasing Putin may have been a contributory factor: the parliamentary groups of the AfD and Die Linke were the only ones to vote against sending heavy weapons to Ukraine in the Bundestag at the end of April.

The struggles of the two parties, whose positions are diametrically opposed on most issues other than Russia, predates the war in Ukraine, however.

The AfD, which surged on to Germany’s political scene by promising a populist backlash after the eurozone crisis and an influx of Syrian refugees in 2015, has now suffered losses in the last eight consecutive state votes, including those in eastern parts of Germany such as Berlin, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Saxony-Anhalt.

Die Linke, meanwhile, has looked rudderless after scraping into the federal parliament last September only thanks to a special provision for parties with at least three direct mandates. Internally divided between the noisily populist messaging of the prominent Sahra Wagenknecht and a more pragmatic but also less prolific faction, it has lost votes in seven elections in a row.

The double blow for the Social Democrats, meanwhile, comes just over six months after Scholz and his party stormed to a triumphant photo finish at national elections, in which the taciturn northerner managed to successfully offer himself up as a leader in the calm, pragmatic mould of the outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel.

Russia’s war in Ukraine, however, has turned some of Scholz’s selling points into negatives, as commentators accuse him of failing to adequately explain his position on weapons exports or energy embargoes.

“Scholz is trapped in the role of the crisis chancellor,” wrote the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper on Monday. “For weeks the war in Ukraine has almost completely overshadowed all other issues.”

“Scholz’s hesitant course on delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine is being interpreted by a section of society as weak leadership, while others consider it prudent.”

As Scholz has looked hamstrung by an internal SPD debate on the failures of its historical policy of economic rapprochement with Russia, the Greens of the foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, and the economic minister, Robert Habeck, who have managed to communicate their positions more convincingly.

“The way Habeck and Baerbock are ushering the country through these times of war appears to convince people,” wrote Der Spiegel, “with clear words, emotion and the odd admission that they too struggle with actions demanded of them”.

In Germany’s federalised political system, not every vote at state level can be interpreted as a verdict on the conduct of the national government. A month into the Ukraine war, the SPD also managed to score an absolute majority in the small state of Saarland, a rarity in contemporary Germany.

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