Electoral Uncertainty in a Changing Saxony

Nina Tophoff

Research Intern

Nina Tophoff was a research intern at AICGS for the summer of 2019. She conducts research for current projects and for resident fellows, helps organize and document events, manages the database, and operates the front desk at AICGS.

Ms. Tophoff is a rising junior at the Johns Hopkins University, pursuing a double major in International Studies and Economics. Her research interests lie in international trade and trade policy, particularly between the United States and the European Union, as well as issues facing the eurozone.

As a student at Johns Hopkins, she is very involved with the university’s chapter of European Horizons, a student-run think tank that focuses on European politics and transatlantic affairs. In addition, she is a member of the Executive Board of the Alexander Hamilton Society, a non-partisan organization that promotes constructive debate on foreign, economic, and national security policy. She hopes to eventually pursue a career in international diplomacy.

On September 1, voters in the eastern state of Saxony will be headed to the polls to elect a new state government. In making their choice, voters will have to balance a range of important issues, especially on immigration and energy policy. While the results of the election are still uncertain, they will likely be immensely consequential for Saxony’s political future.

As it currently stands, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Alternative for Germany (AfD) are projected to receive around 27.6 percent and 25.2 percent of the vote, respectively, while parties such as the Left, the Greens, and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) are trailing relatively far behind at 16 percent, 12 percent, and 8 percent. While the CDU, the Left, and the SPD are all likely to lose a significant number of voters, it will be especially dramatic for the CDU, which won nearly 40 percent of the vote in the 2014 state election. The AfD and the Greens, on the other hand, stand to more than double their share of the 2014 vote total in this election.

If the AfD does as well as predicted by the polls, it could win as many as twenty-one seats in the state parliament, bringing its total up to thirty seats. In one of the biggest stories to come out of this election thus far, the party may not be able to claim all these seats. Prior to the election, each party was required to submit one list of candidates to Saxony’s electoral commission to whom seats are then allotted according to the party’s share of the vote. The AfD submitted two different lists from separate party conferences, which went against German election laws. Thus, Saxony’s electoral commission ruled that only the first list of eighteen candidates will be able to participate in the election, significantly limiting the number of seats the AfD can gain in the parliament. The chairman of the AfD’s Saxony branch, Jörg Urban, has condemned the decision, calling it a conspiracy to “weaken the strongest political competitor in the regional elections in Saxony.”

The party can potentially make up for its shortfall by winning enough “direct mandates” to regain its lost seats, as Saxony uses a mixed-member proportional system to elect candidates to parliament. Of the state parliament’s 120 members, sixty are chosen through party lists, and the remaining sixty are elected directly by their constituents. Thus, enough voters will have to vote directly for AfD members to represent them in parliament in order for the AfD to make up for seats lost through its election paperwork mishap. In addition, the AfD has challenged the commission’s decision in the state’s constitutional court. Though the court may will likely lengthen the party’s list, its final verdict will not be released until August 16.

While the AfD may not gain as many seats as projected, it could still make it difficult for the remaining parties to build a stable coalition.

While the AfD may not gain as many seats as projected, it could still make it difficult for the remaining parties to build a stable coalition. The current government, headed by incumbent minister-president Michael Kretschmer, is made up of a coalition between the CDU and the SPD, which together hold around 61 percent of seats in parliament. However, if current polling holds, the current government will not be reelected with a majority, as the CDU and SPD will only hold a little over 38 percent of seats, and a traditional two-party or grand coalition looks to be mathematically impossible. In a tweet sent out last year, Mr. Kretschmer ruled out a coalition between the CDU and the Left (which would also have to involve a third party in order to reach a majority), calling the parties’ respective positions “incompatible” with one another. This could potentially mean that the CDU will have to work with the AfD as one of its coalition partners in order to avoid political paralysis in Saxony’s parliament.  Saxon CDU leaders have yet to rule out a coalition with the AfD, which could potentially give them a majority in parliament, and if they choose to go this route, it could have significant ramifications for Germany’s political establishment. Up until now, the CDU has “categorically” ruled out any coalition with the AfD, as such a coalition could cause domestic and international backlash and harm the party’s reputation.  There is some speculation that the CDU can form a minority government that would be tolerated by other parties, but Mr. Kretschmer himself has stated that he would rather avoid this. The CDU has ruled Saxony since reunification, and the risk of voter fatigue with the party is a real possibility. Given the uncertainty of the results of this election, however, only time can tell what sort of coalition will be formed.

The CDU has ruled Saxony since reunification, and the risk of voter fatigue with the party is a real possibility.

One of the primary reasons why traditional parties such as the CDU are struggling in regional elections in eastern Germany is that voters are increasingly shifting to populist, anti-immigrant parties. People in Saxony are frustrated by what they see as a leftward shift in the CDU’s policies, especially as they relate to immigration. Despite the fact that foreigners only make up 2.2 percent of Saxony’s population, 60 percent of Saxons believe that there are too many immigrants in Germany, compared to 20 percent of all Germans. Many Saxons perceive foreigners in other parts of Germany as the cause of a host of social problems and are worried that immigrants will bring the same problems to Saxony. This attitude has been exemplified by the success of the Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident) movement in the region, as well as last year’s far-right demonstrations in the Saxon city of Chemnitz.  Many voters are thus attracted to the AfD’s far-right, anti-immigrant message, significantly boosting the party’s popularity in the state.

Another issue at the forefront of this election is climate and energy policy, especially with the rising popularity of the Green Party throughout Germany. Saxony is still a major source of lignite (brown coal) in Germany and its economy continues to be dependent on coal and power production. The state will thus be strongly affected by the federal government’s decision to phase out fossil fuel by the year 2038. Mr. Kretschmer has expressed doubts about proposals such as the pricing of carbon emissions, saying that “commuters will pay the price.” The AfD is also capitalizing on voter’s fears of the fossil fuel phase out. In July, the party released a declaration on its environmental policy agenda, casting doubt on man-made climate change and characterizing the expansion of renewables as “imposed ordeals.” As the climate likely becomes a more pressing issue in German politics, Saxon parties will have to address it without alienating voters in the coal-dependent state.

Whatever happens in the coming election in Saxony could shape politics in the state for the foreseeable future. However, with the uncertainty created by the AfD’s paperwork blunder and the challenges facing the parties in building a stable coalition, no one knows for sure what to expect. Nevertheless, it will almost certainly be an important election to watch as established parties gauge their electoral prospects in eastern Germany.

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