Monday, January 21, 2013

Elections in Lower Saxony - Change, but no wind of change (yet)

Yesterday’s regional elections in Lower Saxony delivered a last-minute victory of the two major opposition parties. The government in Lower Saxony will change but the outcome was too close to call this a signal of wind of change at the federal elections in September. However, it was a clear signal that a third term in office for Angela Merkel is far from certain.
It was a neck-to-neck race between the current governing coalition (which as in Berlin consists of Merkel’s CDU and the liberal FDP) and the major opposition parties, the social-democratic SPD and the Green Party until midnight. Only then it became clear that the major opposition parties have a majority by one seat in Lower Saxony. A change of government in Lower Saxony.

The direct impact of such a change would be a new power equation in the Bundesrat (the council of states or Upper House), in which chancellor Merkel would be facing a majority of Social Democrats and Greens seeking to constrain her legislative agenda. However, as no major national policy initiatives are expected ahead of the federal elections and the opposition parties normally support Merkel’s euro crisis management, the short-term impact should remain limited.

The indirect, and more interesting, impact was another one: the outcome of the federal elections in September remains highly uncertain. There is no wind of change but the current government (both in Lower Saxony and Berlin) is far from moving towards an easy victory.

The big surprise of yesterday’s election was the comeback of the FDP, scoring an impressive and better-than-expected result of more than 9%. This gain was mainly driven by tactical votes of CDU voters to ensure that the FDP would clear the 5%-threshold necessary to remain in parliament. While the FDP staged an impressive comeback, the Pirate party which had breakout performances in 2011 and 2012 looks increasingly unlikely to play any important role at the federal elections in September. Quarrelling, chaos and an apparent lack of direction have resulted in voters screaming for the exits.

Almost nine months ahead of the next national elections the only certainty is that nothing is certain. The CDU, and above all Angela Merkel, remain highly popular. This popularity, however, is clearly no guarantee for another term in office for Angela Merkel. Yesterday’s elections also illustrate that even sharing this popularity with the liberal party by “lending” votes might not be enough. More rescue packages or a search for new strategic coalition partners might be needed. Otherwise, the chancellery could get an unexpected new landlord in September.

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