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Thrilling state election

Volker Wagener / sstJanuary 21, 2013

It was a dream result for the pro-business FDP in Lower Saxony. But still, it wasn't enough to keep their coalition going with Merkel's CDU. This could spell trouble for the chancellor, writes DW's Volker Wagener.


Every Sunday evening there is a crime thriller "Tatort" (Crime Scene) on German TV. Well almost. There wasn't a Tatort last night, but that doesn't mean there wasn't any thriller. At state elections in Lower Saxony there were no bullets fired, but there was no less on the line than political survival.

The nail-biter lasted until just before midnight: Victory for the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens. It was an unexpected win, especially with almost ten percent of the votes going to the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), the junior coalition partner of Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU). The losers are stumped, and election analysts are perplexed as well.

Lessons for Berlin

A state election eight months before national parliamentary elections is automatically deemed a test case for Berlin - for government parties as well as the opposition. Chancellor Merkel has a problem now. Her man in Hanover, the very popular premier David McAllister, didn't manage to stay in office despite being faced off against a comparatively dull contender Stephan Weil (SPD).

The CDU's "alms mission" has failed. Some 80 percent of the FDP's roughly ten percent came from CDU voters. In essence, this means the party was kept on life support. There's no other way to put it. The FDP is now - all but officially - an unreliable partner for Merkel after the Lower Saxony election. The SPD and the Greens, however, have gained momentum for their federal campaign.

When it comes to the SPD, only the most naive of optimists could have predicted such an outcome. The SPD are now in a position to nominate a state premier - even after its second worst result in history in a northern state, and that with a candidate who had to fight to make himself known in a boring election campaign.

It's a small sensation - if not more. Especially considering the constant gaffes that have plagued Merkel's SPD contender for the federal election, Peer Steinbrück. The gaffes were so frequent that Steinbrück was even seen as a liability for the SPD - on the federal as well as the state level.

Trump card - The Green Party

The Social Democrats were saved by the Greens in Lower Saxony. The former alternative party managed to double its votes and has risen as the third player in German politics. And that with results in the double digits. The Green Party is no longer the radical eco party of the 70s and 80s that gains support by simply currying favors with voters.

Green party members, above all those who belong to the metropolitan, middle-class crowd who no longer represent a threat to the status quo, now even appeal to people in the conservative camp. This could lead to a change of power in Berlin in favor of a coalition of SPD and Greens, providing that a Green surplus in votes balances out the lacking SPD votes. This could even keep Peer Steinbrück's dreams of becoming chancellor alive.

The FDP and its bedeviled 9.9 percent

Jubilation for the SPD and Greens, grievance for the CDU - it's now the FDP that's up in the air. Despite the "10 percent," the result is essentially ghastly. But the lingering question of who will head the party - a thorn in the FDP's side for some time now - has been decided quicker than anyone could have guessed.

Party chief Philipp Rösler has offered to step down, and Rainer Brüderle, parliamentary group chairman, is scheduled to take over. The 67-year old former economics minister is a "man for the people," as he once said about himself.

The FDP seems to be linking its future to Brüderle. As they see it, he is the key to the party securing - without help from the CDU - its five to seven percent of federal votes. What does it matter that Brüderle is is seen as an old-fashioned FDP member of 80s?