Angela Merkel will likely sleep a bit more easily after this election night. At the beginning of the year, three of Germany's states opted for preterm elections, and most observers were sure that the bottom would fall out for Merkel's center-right coalition partner, the Free Democrats (FDP). Advance polls put the FDP at three percent or less, and it seemed unthinkable that they would make a comeback.
After the first preterm election in the state of Saarland, the FDP walked away with just 1.2 percent of the vote, forcing them out of the state parliament.
Sunday's Schleswig-Holstein elections brought a very different result. The FDP achieved its second-best result in the party's history. While their showing is notably weaker than in 2009, one has to take into account the circumstances at the time. The 2009 vote was on the same day as federal parliamentary elections, and the FDP achieved both in Schleswig-Holstein and nationally an absolutely exceptional result that cannot be used as a gauge for future comparisons.
The party's surprising success in Schleswig-Holstein means that they may have better chances in North Rhine-Westphalia's election, set to take place on May 13. The Free Democrats may just survive at the federal level after all.
That result may help the chancellor cope with the fact that her own party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), ended up with their worst showing in Schleswig-Holstein since 1950 and may not remain in power there. But now that the FDP has nearly reached the end of its rope, the party will likely prove an easily manageable coalition partner for the chancellor.Helping Merkel in the EU
In particular, Schleswig-Holstein's election could make Merkel's crisis management work at the European level run more smoothly - a surprising consequence for a mere state election. The explanation lies in the way the FDP managed to achieve its success with voters. In contrast to his party's federal platform, the FDP's strong-willed top candidate in Schleswig-Holstein, Wolfgang Kubicki, endorses a Europe-wide financial transactions tax. He is also open to suggestions from the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Green Party to raise taxes on Germany's top-earning income bracket in order to finance a European stimulus package without having to take on new debts to do so.
Kubicki is now in a good position to press the FDP to adopt his platform throughout the party. That could help bring the opposition around to supporting a European fiscal pact and ratifying it with the necessary two-thirds majority in Germany. If the FDP were to support Merkel on these issues, that would give her better chances in reaching an agreement with French election winner Hollande on the fiscal pact and on a European stimulus package.
Though the Schleswig-Holstein results do not give the chancellor reason to celebrate, things could have turned out much worse for her. Those who had feared or hoped that Merkel would run out of steam with this election can think again - at least for a week, until the next preterm election takes place in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Author: Peter Stützle / gsw
Editor: Nigel Tandy