Political Weather Vanes: Germany’s Regional Elections

Jackson Janes

President Emeritus of AGI

Jackson Janes is the President Emeritus of the American-German Institute at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, where he has been affiliated since 1989.

Dr. Janes has been engaged in German-American affairs in numerous capacities over many years. He has studied and taught in German universities in Freiburg, Giessen and Tübingen. He was the Director of the German-American Institute in Tübingen (1977-1980) and then directed the European office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Bonn (1980-1985). Before joining AICGS, he served as Director of Program Development at the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (1986-1988). He was also Chair of the German Speaking Areas in Europe Program at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC, from 1999-2000 and is Honorary President of the International Association for the Study of German Politics .

Dr. Janes is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Atlantic Council of the United States, and American Purpose. He serves on the advisory boards of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, and the Beirat der Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik (ZfAS). He serves on the Selection Committee for the Bundeskanzler Fellowships for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Dr. Janes has lectured throughout Europe and the United States and has published extensively on issues dealing with Germany, German-American relations, and transatlantic affairs. In addition to regular commentary given to European and American news radio, he has appeared on CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, CBC, and is a frequent commentator on German television. Dr. Janes is listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in Education.

In 2005, Dr. Janes was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Germany’s highest civilian award.

Ph.D., International Relations, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California
M.A., Divinity School, University of Chicago
B.A., Sociology, Colgate University

Transatlantic relations, German-American relations, domestic German politics, German-EU relations, transatlantic affairs.



Rebels have a history in Kiel. It was here in 1918 that a rebellion began, which later evolved into a revolution that brought down the Kaiser and led to the founding of Germany’s first Republic. That Republic’s fate did not end well − it lost its capacity to govern, as well as the trust of the people.

The state election results on May 6 in Schleswig Holstein were not made of a revolution, but they did signal that there are rumblings among the citizens unhappy with the government. Yet, those same citizens are uncertain about what alternatives are preferable − a lot of them did not even bother to choose.

The governing conservative coalition in Kiel between the CDU and the FDP was tossed out, but there was no majority for the opposition SPD or Greens to form a government, even though they both gained support. Any hope of forming a governing coalition will depend on the unique presence of the party representing the Danish minority in Schleswig-Holstein − the Südschleswigscher Wählerverband (SSW) − with their three seats in the Parliament. Meanwhile, the FDP was happy with its results, even though its support dropped significantly from the last state elections. Without the sheer force of its long-term main face in Schleswig Holstein – Wolfgang Kubicki – the results would not have been as pleasant.

Then there were the newcomers – the Pirates – who managed to secure as much support as the FDP on their first run at the state parliament. However, they explicitly stated they did not want to be part of a governing coalition. It is probable that the Pirates prevented the SPD and the Greens from achieving a majority in the Parliament.

So what to make of these results? Almost half of the eligible voters did not show up at the polls − who is to blame for that? In a state that is facing some severe economic problems, that result is little testimony in trust in the available leadership to solve them. When the two large parties − the SPD and the CDU − together can attract less than two thirds of the votes (of less than two thirds of the eligible voters) there should be some questions raised about the credibility of the message and the messengers. On the other hand, the smaller parties  the Greens, the FDP and the Pirates − all exemplify the capacity to mobilize core voters. However, they also represent the difficulty of mobilizing enough support for a viable government. Indeed, the problem of forging a persuasive platform for governing is becoming increasingly difficult to accomplish.

If the SPD and the Greens can form a government in Schleswig-Holstein, it will likely only be possible due to the one vote majority it can muster with the SSW, which exists nowhere else in Germany and has three thousand members. Similarly, the CDU could forge a majority with the Greens and the FDP, but the basis of a consensus for a credible political platform among those three parties is not evident.

There are arguments that state challenges are sufficiently great to warrant a coalition between the two large parties, the CDU and the SPD. There are, for that matter, several other states in Germany being governed by this very equation. Indeed, Germany was governed by such a coalition under Angela Merkel’s first term as Chancellor (2005-2009) and some say that it was a coalition able to help deal with the global economic collapse of that period. However, the effects of the economic storms remain at all levels of government, leaving both the elected and the electing uncertain of paths ahead.

While one state is sorting out its political future, a much larger German state will decide its path on May 13: North Rhine-Westphalia. NRW may very well be another illustration of how difficult forging a governing majority can be. The SPD-led coalition with the Greens was a minority government that collapsed over budget issues and will now seek a second chance to secure a safe majority. But here again, the Pirates will be sailing in the same waters and may stand in the way. One has to ask in both these elections just why the Pirates are able to attract support from left of center. Or better said, the SPD and the Greens need to find an answer to that question soon.

Furthermore, what happens to the FDP next Sunday will be a topic of national discussion. Just as one man was decisive in Schleswig Holstein, so might another make a difference in NRW. Christian Lintner may find himself a hero on Sunday, not only in Duesseldorf but also in Berlin. But the FDP, like other parties, has to figure out how it can offer both a program and people who are persuasive. That has been a serious dilemma for a party serving in a governing coalition at the national level, yet has lost significant popular support in the past two and half years at the state and local levels.

Chancellor Merkel will need to be measuring her steps as she looks at her third run as Chancellor late next year – and in what coalition that can be accomplished. However, she will also need to be sure her own party can match the expectations of a nervous electorate.

Following the revolution that began in Kiel in 1918, the Republic’s fate did not end well. Ultimately, it lost the faith of those it had to lead, thus losing its power to govern. The current German Republic has a far better and longer record of meeting those challenges. Looking around Europe these days -and that can include Russia and the Ukraine − one should not take that for granted. However, it is also evident that there is a constant reminder for a need to renew that capacity, as well as a constant measuring stick that comes in the form of elections. In Germany, the state elections are all seen as harbingers of the national race – now a year and a half away. That is a long time in politics but, like the winds on the Northern coast, the political weather can change quickly and unexpectedly after each election, as exemplified last Sunday in Kiel. The next weather vane will be found in Lower Saxony early in 2013, that is, unless an unexpected storm pops up along the way.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.