State Elections as a Celebration of Democracy

Karl-Rudolf Korte

Universität Duisberg-Essen

Prof. Dr. Karl-Rudolf Korte is Professor of Political Science at the Universität Duisberg-Essen, where he focuses on the political system of the Federal Republic of Germany. He is also the Director of the NRW School of Governance.

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Refugees decided the weekend’s state elections.  The refugee politics were the 2016 power issue in competition between parties. All three incumbents were confirmed as minister-president in Rheinland-Palatinate, Baden-Württemberg, and Saxony-Anhalt, because they have showcased superior competence in the face of epochal challenges.  This is extremely unusual in times of turbulent events.  In many other European states, incumbents have been ousted due to international turbulence and extreme populists moved into the parliaments. The situation is different in Germany: a very personal confirmation of the incumbents, the voting out of respective governments, strong support for parties of the established political center, and election of a protest party, also in the larger western state parliaments.

No issue has been engrained in daily life like dealing with new strangers, whether as refugees or as people in need. The largest issue is the translation of globalization into daily family life. Humanitarian assistance is mixed with fears, conflicts, and completely new distribution struggles that no family can escape.  Refugee politics is the main theme at breakfast, at work, during leisure, and in conversations with friends and neighbors.  It’s the main issue in the media. There has not been any other election-deciding policy area since the surge of globalization last summer.

For Mainz, Stuttgart, and Magdeburg, this has been the second successive election in which a main issue was dominant. In 2011 the nuclear debate decided the outcome of the election. Two weeks before the elections the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima occurred. The external shock made the election a vote about environment and energy.

Last week the external shock was the agenda of refugee politics.  The voter turnout was therefore high. The clear increase in election participation shows the opportunities democracy presents.  The handling of asylum-seekers, the management of the distribution of migrants, and the worries about overburdening local authorities have enormous potential for polarization. When the population feels it can decide an important issue, the turnout on Election Day rises.  Not only was voter turnout breathtakingly high, but the voters’ choices were exceptionally new. What explanations are available?

Paradoxes in Voting Behavior

In a so-called customer democracy, there are only a few connected voters. Most voters are concerned with the practical and daily.  Internal contradictions, so-called cognitive dissonance, which are not eliminated, play a role.  Different consumption patterns are combined in one person as a customer, as they are one-minute-shopping in discount stores and the next in exclusive shops.  This can be applied to the election.  Without objection did Kretschmann for the Greens and Dreyer for the SPD collect numerous supporters of Merkel’s European refugee policy. Those who wanted to support Merkel’s CDU voted for the SPD or Greens.  The CDU candidates had given the impression that they wanted to distance themselves from the chancellor’s strict course. With an uncompromising commitment to the grand coalition’s European approach to refugee policy, elections could be won last Sunday.

Dialectical Approaches

Rarely are state elections dominated by a global issue. In addition to the refugee agenda, the perception of the grand coalition shaped election results. Grand coalitions systematically lead to a sense of uncertainty among their followers.  They make the Big small and the Small big and lead to fraying at the political fringes.  But the election results must be interpreted dialectically because not only did global and federal conditions in Germany shape the outcome, but also the individual state- and personality-specific context. The SPD won in Mainz and saw a total disaster in Stuttgart and Magdeburg. The Greens barely made it into two parliaments and became the strongest party for the first time in history in Stuttgart. The loss of the Left in Saxony-Anhalt was very state-specific, where they lost many voters to the AfD. There are many more examples. The election can be analyzed only with a dialectical approach: large and very small trends, homogenization and differentiation, all acting simultaneously.

One should also interpret dialectically that on the one hand the election was based on personalities (crisis-oriented navigators and orientation authorities that acted uncompromisingly). On the other hand, the AfD was elected as a protest party without any charismatic candidates in any of the three states and by and large unknown to the voters. The protest had no face. This is not at all unusual for a party in the making; nevertheless, it was in contrast to the main trend in the election that was determined by the personalities of Dreyer, Kretschmann, and Haselhoff.

Snapshots, Not the Start of a Pattern

Picky voters tend to make spontaneous decisions. When more and more citizens decide late and capriciously, then more volatile voters are mobilized. Voter markets are calculable for snapshots, but not in the long term. The mass protest of voters—who were once repeating non-voters—were reflected in the votes for the AfD and associated with fear and disappointment regarding the central themes of security and order.  One can reach volatile voters to some degree, but not reliably. More than half of the voters were floating voters. Every party can profit from this.  Nothing is more difficult than having protest voters stick by a party long term.  In 2017, when other global or German issues will be dominant, it is likely that different parties will benefit than those this past weekend. Election Day reflects the moment of the day. Sunday did not start a pattern.

Coalitions of Fear

Those profiting from the refugee issue were the parties on the right and the right-populist fringe, especially the AfD: benefitting from resentment and frustration. These parties gathered the fear from the center of society and the lesson voters of the grand coalition. These resentment-driven voters in the center have always existed. They fill the supply gap in the established political spectrum to  address their displeasure with “too much globalization,” “too much Europe,” “too much modernization,” and “those at the top,” with a  vote for the AfD. However, as a protest movement, the AfD  collected not only non-voters but also votes from all political camps—in the east more from the Left, in the west more from the CDU. The AfD is an “against-party” that drives anti-elitist anger. Whether they are a party that can also function in the parliaments will have to be determined. The first experiences in the eastern states show how difficult parliamentary political management is without prior experience. Should the AfD adapt like they did three years ago when they were founded and move to new issues that attract globalization-fearing voters of the middle who are not attracted to the established parties, they will play a long-term role in the party competition. Presumably the AfD will divide: a western AfD for more moderate citizens, and a right-wing populist and nationalist AfD, acting in the east.

Postmodern Government Building

Three five-party parliaments emerged on Sunday.Government building is now only feasible under postmodern perspectives. Neither the classical idea—big party plus small party = majority—nor the addition of both major parties into a grand coalition lead to reliable majorities. This is new in the party competition. Three or four parties must agree to govern jointly. Minority governments could develop.  It is not clear whether a red-green-yellow coalition will emerge in Mainz, although it is likely, or whether Stuttgart will have a green-black government (a new grand coalition of the strongest mandated fractions), or whether Magdeburg will see a black-red-green coalition. But the color games have begun; the process of selecting a bride has begun and couples therapy is imminent.

Election Day

Sunday was a celebration of democracy. German society has become more politicized and polarized since last summer. Quarrel as part of democracy is once again public—despite the grand coalition in Berlin.  The grand coalition has emerged extremely bruised since Election Day but has not lost its energy to fight, because it has become clear that voters now expect more explanations about globalization than before. The CDU and SPD can gain more supporters of a globalized outlook,  if they are more communicative than before and present concrete proposals that appeal to the voters in the center. The politicized society is searching for new forms of expression and formats. The established system of parliamentary democracy was able to register high popularity on Sunday.  State parliaments can become new places of expressing resentment.

Translated from German by Hannah Matangos and Susanne Dieper.

Prof. Dr. Karl-Rudolf Korte is Professor of Political Science at the Universität Duisberg-Essen and an AGI Non-Resident Fellow.

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