Despite a gaffe-prone SPD Chancellorial candidate, the Red-Green bloc is putting up a strong challenge to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in the run-up to the 2013 election

On January 20, the German centre-left, comprising the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party, won the state of Lower Saxony by one seat in the Landtag or provincial assembly, thereby raising fresh questions in the lead-up to the 2013 federal election, even though that is still six months away. The Red-Green bloc has gained momentum from this, not least for capturing four stronghold states in succession from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), even though this time it had to survive the loss of a substantial pre-election lead in the opinion polls.

For the record, the party-list proportional electoral system gave the SPD and the Greens respective vote-shares of 32.6 per cent and 13.7 per cent; the partners now have 69 seats in the 137-place assembly, which is in Hanover. The SPD gained 2.3 percentage points over its 2008 figures, taking 49 seats, and Green support leapt by 5.7, resulting in 20 assembly places — a gain of eight. The winners’ main opponents, the CDU and the right-wing Free Democratic Party (FDP), were the only two others to reach the 5 per cent threshold. The CDU lost a huge 6.5 per cent and 14 seats to end on 36 per cent and 54 seats, but the FDP disproved widespread predictions of meltdown by gaining 1.7 per cent on its 2008 figure to win 9.9 per sent and 14 seats, an increase of one. The winners probably cannot take quite as much heart from this particular result as they might have expected to do, but the CDU, the senior partner in the state and federal coalition, faces a problem, as the FDP gains were made at its expense; the FDP’s revival continues, and a recent national poll puts it at 5 per cent, the threshold for a parliamentary seat.

Several wider implications also arise. First, the centre-left now has an absolute majority in the powerful federal upper chamber, the Bundesrat, which is drawn from the state legislatures; the Red-Green bloc in the upper house can henceforth block or amend Ms Merkel’s legislation as it sees fit. Second, the defeat in Lower Saxony is only the latest in a series of setbacks for the CDU. In February 2012, a Merkel ally, Christian Wulff, resigned the German Presidency over a dubious financial deal. Moreover, few of the current cabinet are public personalities, and Education Minister Annette Schavan, a confidant of the Chancellor’s, resigned on February 9 after it emerged that she had plagiarised her PhD thesis; she becomes the second CDU minister to leave with a cloud over her mortarboard, as the then Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned in March 2011 over a similar scandal. As if that were not enough, the Lower Saxony defeat also means the ousted Minister-President David McAllister ceases for the present to be a likely successor to the Chancellor.

Not much gain

At first sight, this should suit the SPD in particular. Although its partners, the Greens are rising steadily in the polls, the SPD has yet to show strongly resurgent support, and has potentially serious problems with its Chancellorial candidate Peer Steinbrück’s inability to turn his grasp of fiscal policy into gaffe-free politics. Even Mr. Steinbrück himself recognises that he can be a liability for the party. After rows over his substantial lecturing fees and over a comment in an interview with the Sunday paper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, that German Chancellors are not paid enough, he kept away from the Lower Saxon campaign, and later admitted that he had been “partly responsible” for the fact that his party had not “much tailwind” from party headquarters. A little later, at a Green Week farming fair in Berlin, a group of children near the Steinbrück entourage laughed and waved, but the newsmagazine, Spiegel International, reports that instead of jumping at the gift photo-opportunity the candidate “growled” that the children did not even know who his group were, and walked on. Needless to say, substantial proportions of the SPD membership, who have not forgotten Mr. Steinbrück’s role as finance minister during the implementation of Gerhard Schröder’s welfare reforms — which the party now regards with disfavour — are less than happy with this kind of conduct, and are also deeply suspicious of the fact that Mr. Steinbrück is clearly more at home among high corporate executives than among the party’s core support. The Greens too, find him less than congenial.

In sharp contrast, Chancellor Merkel’s own low-key, pragmatic style appeals to voters, and together with her success in minimising the domestic effects of the Euro crisis has given her steady personal ratings of over 70 per cent.

Ms Merkel has, however, started to distance herself from her coalition ally the FDP, saying each party would fight for itself. Her personal attributes will be significant assets as the election nears and the publicity surrounding the party leaders intensifies, but while Ms Merkel has problems with her party, the SPD has problems with its candidate. Whatever else, the federal election in one of the world’s most important countries is now very much open.

arvind.sivaramakrishnan@thehindu.co.in

More In: Comment | Opinion