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Greens are jubilant, Merkel's CDU suffers defeat

March 14, 2021

The Green Party has been buoyed by the outcome of the first elections of 2021. But the conservatives have taken a blow that does not bode well ahead of national elections later this year.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel
The conservatives are grappling to come to terms with their historically bad showing in the regional votesImage: Markus Schreiber/AFP/Getty Images

As soon as the first results were published it was clear that the incumbents had been returned to office: Winfried Kretschmann, Green Party Premier of Baden-Württemberg, and Social Democrat Malu Dreyer in Rhineland-Palatinate will remain in office for another five years.

This came as a visible relief, as a growing discontent with both governments over coronavirus lockdown regulations has been mounting. But in times of crisis — like the current pandemic — political analysts point out, the electorate won't go for change but wants to play it safe.

"People voted for personalities here, and the coronavirus crisis has given them a noticeable boost," was the analysis offered by Wolfgang Schäuble, Bundestag president and member of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), speaking to public broadcaster ARD on Sunday evening as results had come in.

Winfried Kretschmann waving and smiling
Baden-Württemberg's Green Party Premier has been returned to office with a resounding victoryImage: Uli Deck/dpa/picture alliance

CDU unable to cash in on Merkel's popularity

The two regional elections are seen as an early test case ahead of the general election in September this year. After 16 years in office Chancellor Angela Merkel is standing down. It is not yet clear who the conservative bloc will choose to put forward as her successor — CDU chairman Armin Laschet or the head of its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) Markus Söder. Whoever it is, the advantage of Merkel's incumbency will not simply transfer to them. The political situation in Germany, amid the pandemic, has seldom been so open.

Face mask scandal costs the conservatives

The CDU has suffered heavy losses and failed to meet its election targets in both states. In Baden-Württemberg the party has slipped to an all-time low.

The poor perception of the CDU-led federal government surely plays a role in this: the chaotic rollout of vaccinations, disputes over school closures, the endless restrictions, the reports from overseas where immunizations are progressing much faster. All this damages the CDU and CSU.

Most damaging of all is the scandal surrounding lawmakers from both parties who enriched themselves as the beginning of the pandemic through dubious business deals on face masks. At the moment, it's difficult for Angela Merkel's party to find a way out of this slump.

The Greens are the new centrists

The Green party is expected to remain a junior coalition partner in Rhineland Palatinate, having grown its share of the vote there.

And with the third election victory of Winfried Kretschmann in Baden-Württemberg, this time by a huge margin, the Greens see confirmation that they are again ready to be part of the federal government come September.

Everything points to a coalition with the conservative CDU/CSU bloc. The environmentalist and protest party has become the new middle ground for many people in Germany. On Sunday night, Robert Habeck, one of the two the Greens co-leaders on the national level, already sounded rather statesmanlike. He told public broadcaster ARD: "Foresight and pragmatism: that's the mandate for the Greens, for the entire federal party, this election evening. As strongly as we have performed, we are also contemplative. The trust, the acceptance in politics and in democratic decisions is crumbling."

Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock laughing at the party's 40th anniversary celebration in November 2020
Robert Habeck (l) and his co-chair Annalena Baerbock have every reason to celebrateImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

The SPD remains confident

The Social Democrats (SPD) have proved with the election victory of Malu Dreyer in Rhineland Palatinate that they can still win an election, but in nationwide polls, they struggle to reach over 15%.

Therefore, the optimism shown by the SPD candidate for chancellor Olaf Scholz on election night was somewhat surprising. His party already has already published its election platform and a person to head it, namely him, Scholz said with confidence. That would soon pay off: "This is all part of a very clear strategy to help us get closer to our goal, week by week, month by month," he said.

Germany's SPD names Scholz as chancellor candidate

Hope for the FDP

The business-friendly Free Democrats(FDP) have strengthened their position in both states. They are likely to remain part of the coalition government with the Greens and SPD in Rhineland-Palatinate. Speaking with confidence after his party's good showing, Christian Lindner stressed that his Free Democrats were willing to share responsibility as part of any coalition government also on the federal level as long as that allowed them to implement their political goals.

Setback for the right-wing populists

The far-right populists of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) could not profit from the frustration felt by many citizens over the coronavirus crisis. In both western German states the party took heavy losses.

The AfD, which has its voter base mainly in eastern Germany may also have been harmed by the fallout of the party's recent radicalization: The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, now wants to monitor the entire party as right-wing extremist, even though that move is currently being challenged by the party in the courts. For a long time, the AfD had only gained more votes with every election. Now that trend seems to have stopped.

Green Party MP Konstantin von Notz talks to Deutsche Welle about the decision of German intelligence services to put the AfD under surveillance

Left Party left guessing

The Left party performed poorly in both regional elections on Sunday. But that came as no surprise, as they have never managed to overcome the threshold of 5% to enter parliament in either of the states. So their performance gives no real indication of what is to expect in the federal elections. As always, the Left party needs to win its votes in the east of Germany.

This article was translated from German.

While you're here: Starting on March 16, DW editors will round up for you what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year's elections and beyond. Sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

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