The new elections became necessary after months of negotiations to form a coalition government collapsed late last year, when parliamentary members of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) rebelled against a plan to form government with the assistance of the left-wing party Die Linke.
Under pressure from SPD hardliners, party-leader Andrea Ypsilanti had promised not to deal with Die Linke, a fusion of the Party for Democratic Socialism (the successor to the former East German ruling party) with a left-wing split from the SPD in 2005.
However, when neither major party – the SPD, nor the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) – was able to form government after the 2008 poll, Ypsilanti back-flipped on her promise, securing an agreement with the Greens and Die Linke, but lost support in her own party.
When attempts to form government fell through, the Hesse parliament dissolved itself on November 19, forcing new elections.
The new results were a disaster for the SPD, which dropped thirteen points to only 23% – its worst ever result in Hesse. The CDU's result was also unimpressive, however, managing only a 0.4% increase on last year's result of 36.8, their worst result in Hesse.
The main beneficiaries in the election were the minor parties. Hesse's voters punished the SPD by shifting to the Greens or the pro-market Free Democrats – who received 14 and 16% respectively – while many more simply refused to vote, turnout reaching an all-time low of 61%.
Die Linke achieved only a moderate 0.3% increase to 5.4% allowing them to hold on to the six parliamentary seats they had won last year.
As a result, incumbent CDU Prime Minister Roland Koch has been returned to power, with the assistance of the FDP, an alliance that many see as a likely outcome of the federal election later this year.
The SPD, however, is in total disarray, having lost considerable support due to their antisocial, free market policies, for which they lost government in 2005.
As the unwilling junior partners in a federal "Grand Coalition" government alongside the right-wing CDU, the SPD is continuing to implement these policies, further alienating their traditional support base, already suffering the effects of the global economic crisis.
When German economy fell into recession late last year, the government's response was to announce a €480 billion "bail-out" of the country's major banks. At the same time, unemployment is expected to rise by nearly a million over the next few months, and the poverty rate is estimated to be as high as 18%.
There are already suggestions that the country's second largest private bank, Commerzbank, is using a €10 billion handout simply to finance a takeover bid of Dresdner Bank, and major banks are calling for a second "emergency bailout".
Industrial action is also on the rise in Germany. Last November, over 500,000 metal workers held short strikes across southern Germany, demanding an 8% wage increase, and Lufthansa workers at Frankfurt airport are currently threatening strike action, also over wages.
The Hesse result comes at a bad time for the SPD, whose support is stagnating at 23% nationally, well behind the CDU on 37%, and they remain desperate for political victories in an election year.
Germans will vote this year in sixteen polls, including local, European and presidential elections, as well as state elections in Saarland, Saxony, Thuringia, and Brandenburg before the federal elections on September 27.
The SPD has particular reason to be worried, in the industrial centre of Saarland, which is home to Die Linke co-leader Oscar Lafontaine. Die Linke has polled as high as 29% there — double the SPD support in that state.
In some of the eastern states, such as Thuringia and Saxony, Die Linke are also expected to outpoll the SPD, and support for Die Linke is expected to grow as the economic crisis deepens.
In the former East Germany, Die Linke maintains popular support of over 25%.
It is now the third biggest party in Germany, polling up to 15% nationally and winning seats in every west German state election they have contested except Bavaria, which has a more complicated electoral system.
This popularity lies in Die Linke's criticism of neoliberal economic policies, and in their calls for greater social spending – on education, health, housing and employment – and higher taxes for the rich.
Die Linke's Lafontaine, who has long criticised the role of finance capital, recently called for income tax on all "shameful" incomes – those above 600,000 euros to be increased to 80% – and for the inclusion of sections from the Communist Manifesto in Die Linke's constitution.
Die Linke is also the only German party opposed to militarism and calling for an end to German involvement in the war in Afghanistan.
Despite its rapid growth, however, Die Linke still faces challenges in uniting former social democrats, communists and left-wing radicals around a common platform.
In Berlin – where they are in coalition government with the SPD – Die Linke has been involved in implementing the same neoliberal policies they claim to oppose.
A leader of Die Linke in Berlin also spoke at a recent rally in support of Israel's war in Gaza — defying the party's official opposition to the onslaught.
Despite these challenges, and a media campaign against Die Linke as "neo-communist", Die Linke has shaken up the political landscape in Germany and has forced the four main parties to move to the left on a number of issues.
If it can overcome its problems, Die Linke looks set to score major wins this year and force German politics leftwards.
First published in Green Left Weekly, January 24, 2009.