Scholz's coalition weakened by 'disastrous' far-right gains

All three parties in the coalition— Mr. Scholz's centre-left SPD, the Greens and the liberal FDP— saw support fall on October 8 in the southern region of Bavaria, the country's biggest State, and Hesse in the west

October 10, 2023 11:12 am | Updated 11:12 am IST - Frankfurt

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. | Photo Credit: AFP

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's beleaguered coalition was counting the cost on October 9 of heavy losses at two State elections halfway into its term, which also saw the far right make strong gains.

All three parties in the coalition— Mr. Scholz's centre-left SPD, the Greens and the liberal FDP— saw support fall on October 8 in the southern region of Bavaria, the country's biggest State, and Hesse in the west.

The main conservative opposition won in both polls, as expected, while the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) gained more ground, causing fresh concern about their growing appeal.

Nearly 14 million people were eligible to vote in the States, almost one in five of Germany's electorate. The polls were seen as a crucial indicator of the population's mood, with surging immigration and economic woes among key topics.

"It is clear who won the vote: populism," said news weekly Der Spiegel while the top-selling Bild said a whopping 80 percent of Sunday's voters were calling for a change in migration policy, citing polling institute Infratest dimap.

Two years after coming to power, the polls were a kind of "interim report card" for Mr. Scholz's coalition, Der Spiegel said.

"The results are disastrous," it went on. "The coalition needs a reset if it wants to be re-elected in two years."

For the anti-immigration AfD, the votes were the latest sign of growing momentum and showed their appeal was extending beyond their traditional strongholds in the ex-communist east.

The elections came after a torrid two years for Scholz's government, which has had to contend with Russia's invasion of Ukraine and an ensuing energy crisis that plunged Germany into recession.

Adding to the problems, the chancellor's coalition has been consumed by bitter infighting on issues ranging from climate laws to spending cuts.

However, Mr. Scholz's spokesman Steffen Hebestreit sought to play down the vote setbacks, saying the government was on course to tackle the most pressing issues facing the country.

"The Chancellor is convinced that the government is doing a good job, that it has the right positions and is charting the right course for the longer term," he told reporters.

Not helping the cause of the SPD and its coalition partners, both states are conservative strongholds. Hesse had been ruled for 24 years by the main opposition CDU and Bavaria since 1957 by the CSU, headed by Markus Soeder.

The SPD had sought to gain ground in Hesse by fielding a heavyweight to run for state premier, Interior Minister Nancy Faeser.

But the party won just 15% of the vote, almost five percentage points below its last result in 2018.

The CDU maintained its first place in Hesse and extended its lead by over seven points to 34.6%.

State premier Boris Rhein is thus set to retain his job, while Ms. Faeser is left facing questions about her political future.

SPD party leader Saskia Esken said the poor showing underlined that the government in Berlin must speed up its response on migration in particular.

"We have got to seal migration agreements with the main countries of origin now," she told public broadcaster ARD.

The AfD looked to have gained about five percentage points in both Bavaria and Hesse, building on recent local poll wins, although the mainstreams parties have ruled out cooperation with it in government.

Immigration was a central theme at the polls as Germany— like elsewhere in Europe— faces a surge of new arrivals, reviving memories of a major influx in 2015.

The victory of the CSU— the sister party of the CDU— in Bavaria was widely expected and State Premier Mr. Soeder will retain his post.

But with vote projections showing the party's worst result for decades, it could deal a blow to his ambitions to one day stand as a Chancellor candidate.

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