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Lower Saxony election: Anything can happen

October 15, 2017

Three weeks after the federal election in Germany, the state of Lower Saxony is holding an election for a new regional parliament. The poll could reveal voter sentiment as coalition talks are held in Berlin.

Posters showing Althusmann and Weil
Image: picture alliance/dpa/L. Kempa

The regional elections in the German state of Lower Saxony on Sunday were originally slated for January 2018. But a member of parliament for the Green Party, Elke Twesten, left her party in August to join the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). By doing so, she put an end to the slim majority held by the governing coalition comprised of the Greens and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), making the election necessary.

Many believe this state poll will give clues about how voters view the difficult process of forming a federal government in Berlin.

Merkel warns against left-wing coalition

The two largest parties, CDU and SPD, lost many votes in the national election in September.  

Elke Twesten
Twesten triggered the election with her defectionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Hollemann

Chancellor Angela Merkel, leader of the CDU, has been heavily involved in the short election campaign in the state, even making several appearances in local town squares to address voters in person. She has warned above all against having a ruling coalition made up of the left-wing parties SPD, Greens and the Left party in the Hanover parliament — the SPD has not ruled out the possibility of such an alliance.

"I firmly believe that this alliance would not be good for Lower Saxony," the chancellor told NDR, the public broadcaster for the northern regions of Germany. Merkel is well aware that if current SPD state premier Stephan Weil works toward such a coalition, her own coalition negotiations with the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) will become even more difficult than they already are.

Because the SPD has decided to go into opposition at the national level after recording its worst election outcome since WWII, it has nothing to do with those negotiations in Berlin. As a result, the party in Lower Saxony now feels free in its moves.

But everything is different in Lower Saxony anyway. As the election date approached, the SPD saw a surge in support; some polls even have the party overtaking the CDU, although the conservatives and the social democrats are expected to take 32 and 34 percent of the vote. But this balance does not really reflect a trend at the national level; rather, it can be attributed to Stephan Weil's popularity.

Popular premier

For the Social Democrat premier enjoys considerable support in the state. Although his main challenger, the CDU's Bernd Althusmann, who is considered to be rather on the bland side, was leading the polls for a long time, the gap between the two of them has been constantly closing.

In a TV interview with NDR, federal SPD party leader Martin Schulz explained: "The party is motivated by the bad result we achieved in the Bundestag election." In an interview with the newspaper Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung, Schulz, who was also his party's candidate for chancellor in the national poll, briefly touched on Merkel's aversion to a left-wing coalition, saying: "We have to wait for the election result. Stephan Weil will decide what needs to be done. I am not giving any advice."

In other words, a left-wing coalition is an option. But the Left party must first get over the threshold needed to enter parliament — something that is still by no means certain, with polls showing the party only hovering around that 5-percent benchmark.

Other coalition possibilities

Martin Schulz and Stephan Weil
Schulz (left) hopes Weil (center) will have more success Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Assanimoghaddam

Different combinations of parties are possible, but one thing is certain: The previous coalition of SPD and Greens is barely likely to be able to continue to govern. Theoretically, Lower Saxony's CDU could also work together with the FDP and the Greens, as it intends to do in Berlin with Merkel. But the Green Party would in all probability not take part in a regional alliance with the conservatives, especially as the state branch of the environmentalist party is seen as more left-wing than its national counterpart.

It will be interesting to see how the two small parties currently striving for power in Berlin fare at the state level. The polls have both the FDP and the Greens at a stable 10 percent in Lower Saxony. So far, the reports from Berlin about the possible CDU/CSU-Green-FDP alliance do not appear to be having a negative impact on the Greens and FDP in the state.

Coming to terms with the AfD

Although the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) won more than 12 percent of the vote in the national election, polls had them at just 7 percent in Lower Saxony ahead of the vote on Sunday. But if the party does score another election success, it will surely draw massive media attention again.

Read more: AfD: What you need to know about Germany's far-right party

Martin Schulz wants his party to engage with the phenomenon of the AfD in a different, more open manner than previously — and not only in Lower Saxony. Schulz told the Heidelberg-based newspaper Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung that many AfD voters did not feel they were "respected" and thought that "their personal achievements were not being appreciated." Looking back at the Bundestag election, he added, "We must convince the majority of them that we have heard their wake-up call."

He knows, however, that the other parties cannot win over staunch extremists within the AfD. "But they are a minority among AfD voters," Schulz said.

Read more: New study shows AfD capitalized on Germany's divided electorate

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau