Four German states are going to the polls in 2022, which means four chances for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to repair the damage inflicted in last September's catastrophic general election.
Last year, Angela Merkel's conservative party gave up a healthy lead in the polls to record its worst-ever result and dump the party into opposition for the first time in 16 years. The shock precipitated internal recriminations, the resignation of senior party figures, and a new leadership battle, which will be resolved in January.
Meanwhile for the election winners, the Social Democrats (SPD) under new Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the next elections cannot come soon enough: Now would be an excellent time for the center-left party to take advantage of its success by expanding its power in the upper house of the German parliament, the Bundesrat, which is made up Germany's 16 state governments.
Four states, different situations
The CDU is desperately hoping that its next leader, set to be the staunch conservative and former Merkel-rival Friedrich Merz, can turn fortunes around by March 27, when the small western state of Saarland, on the French border, elects a new government. Once that hurdle has been cleared, major elections in North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein beckon in May, before the medium-sized, but economically powerful state of Lower Saxony votes in the autumn.
All four elections are important, especially for the CDU: "They're a big litmus test for the new CDU chairman," Wolfgang Seibel, chair of politics and public administration at the University of Konstanz, told DW. "The party lost a lot of supporters who turned out to be Merkel voters rather than loyal CDU voters. And [the elections] will also influence the direction the party wants to take. Merz has made a great effort to sand down his image as the economically-liberal representative of the conservative wing."
But some elections are more open than others, and they represent both realistic targets and potential pitfalls for Merz. Saarland is a small state, but its symbolic importance for the next CDU leader is great: The conservative party has governed the state since 1999 but is now trailing the SPD in the polls by close to five points. A loss there could be a serious momentum-killer for a leader attempting to rebuild the party.
Even a win for the CDU would not trouble the SPD all that much, according to Ulrich von Alemann, professor of political science at Düsseldorf University, because they could frame it as simply an endorsement of the CDU's current state premier, Tobias Hans. A win for the SPD, on the other hand, "could look like an endorsement of the national SPD, it's certainly possible that could further strengthen the SPD," said von Alemann.
Much to lose, not much to gain
The CDU's prospects are similarly poor in the other small border region holding an election this spring: Schleswig-Holstein, on the Danish border, will be the next state to go to the polls on May 8. Here too, the CDU currently heads the government but is five points behind the SPD in the polls — though thanks to the strength of the Greens in the state, even a second-placed CDU can hope to continue its current coalition with the Greens and the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP).
But even wins for the CDU in both those states might not be great news for the career of the 66-year-old Friedrich Merz, because a win for the CDU would also be a win for some regional party leaders. Like Tobias Hans in Saarland, the CDU State Premier of Schleswig-Holstein is an ambitious leader still in his forties: Daniel Günther, considered a moderate, compromising conservative in the tradition of Merkel.
"If they do well in the elections, and stay state premiers, they would certainly start to form the post-Merz generation," said von Alemann. "And that wouldn't be very comfortable for him either."
NRW: Tight race, big prize
The closest race so far in this election year is also the biggest: North Rhine-Westphalia will elect its next government only a week after Schleswig-Holstein, on May 15. The prize in Merz's home state is potentially huge — just under a quarter of Germans live, and it has the biggest GDP of any state — and the latest polls have the SPD and the CDU in a dead heat, both on around 27%-28%. "Whoever is state premier here always has an important voice at the federal level," said von Alemann.
For decades, from 1966 to 2005 and then again from 2010 to 2017, the state was considered an SPD stronghold, home to the party's traditional industrial working-class base. But more recently the CDU has enjoyed success in the region, and the center-right has posted its state premier since 2017.
Unfortunately, the four-year reign of Armin Laschet came to a calamitous end last September with his failed attempt to succeed Merkel as chancellor. Now the government is being led by yet another young conservative upstart: 46-year-old Hendrik Wüst.
A former transport minister, Wüst is not well-known even in NRW, and untested as a leader in a major election, but so is his SPD opponent Thomas Kutschaty, a former justice minister in the state. "As a young, fresh candidate, Wüst certainly has a chance of winning NRW," said von Alemann. "But it will be difficult, especially if the new federal government doesn't make any big mistakes in the next three or four months. But a lot can happen in that time. If Wüst wins the election, his position in the CDU would be strengthened significantly."
For the SPD, currently riding a wave of optimism, the last election of the year, in Lower Saxony in October, looks like the safest bet: The Social Democrats currently hold a 13-point lead in the polls, and in Stephan Weil they have a calm and solid state premier who has governed for nine years already.
"I could imagine that the CDU strategists have already given up that election," said von Alemann. "There isn't much they can do there, but it won't change the architecture of the government in Berlin much. It's considered a solid SPD block."
The Bundesrat — Germany's Senate
Beyond their function as bellwethers for the political parties at the national level, Germany's state elections also fulfill an important role in the German legislature. The 16 state governments form the upper house of Germany's parliament, the Bundesrat, which has to pass all federal laws that relate to policy areas that the states have constitutional responsibility for.
But it is not exactly like the US Senate. Unlike US senators, for instance, the 69 Bundesrat members are not elected directly but are nominated by the respective state governments to reflect their proportional to the size of their role in the various coalitions.
And unlike in the United States, an opposition-controlled parliament does not necessarily end up blocking legislation introduced by the chancellery. As coalitions now dominate all of Germany's 16 states, no party wields majority power in the Bundesrat.
This wasn't always the case. "In the past, the Bundesrat was more similar to the US Senate," said von Alemann. "There were two big blocks: The SPD-led states and the CDU-led states, and it was sometimes the case that one of the two blocks had a majority against the federal government. Then there was a gridlock."
That has changed in the last few years, as smaller parties like the Greens and the FDP, and regional parties like the Free Voters in Bavaria, have begun to play bigger roles in the state governments. Seat distribution in the Bundesrat is now a bewildering multicolored checkerboard, with only two states having the exact same coalition (Berlin and Bremen).
On top of this, there is an age-old convention that says if the parties in a state coalition government do not agree on a particular federal law, they must abstain from the vote in the Bundesrat. "For that reason, the voting intention in the Bundesrat is no longer predictable really," von Alemann said.
"One shouldn't overestimate the role of the Bundesrat," said Seibel. Barring a CDU landslide across all four states in 2022, Seibel said, "I think the Bundesrat will play virtually no role in the federal government's ability to govern."
Edited by: Rina Goldenberg
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