Monday, March 28, 2011

Germany: Greens win historic electoral triumph

State elections on March 27 saw the German Greens win an historic victory in Baden-Württemberg – where they will form Germany’s first-ever Green-led government – and triple their vote in the Rheinland-Pfalz.

Riding on widespread public opposition to nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the Greens doubled their support to 24.2 percent of the vote in Baden-Württemberg.

The centre-left Social-Democratic Party (SPD) won 23.1 percent of the vote – a small drop on their 2006 result – while the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) won 39 percent of the vote, down by over 5 points.

The CDU’s ruling coalition partner – the neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) – lost more than half its support, dropping to 5.3 percent – barely enough to remain in the Landtag (state parliament).

The socialist party Die Linke (“The Left”), which took 24 percent in state elections in the eastern state of Sachsen-Anhalt on March 20, won only 2.8 percent of the vote – not enough to enter parliament.

The results mean that Baden-Württemberg will be governed by a Green-SPD coalition, led by the Greens’ Winfried Kretschmann – a founding member of the party in Baden-Württemberg and now the first ever Greens state Minister-Präsident (Premier).

Elections held on the same day in the neighbouring state of Rheinland-Pfalz saw another important victory for the Greens. The governing SPD lost its absolute majority in parliament, dropping by 10 points to 35.7 percent.

That vote went almost entirely to the Greens, who tripled their vote to 15.4 percent, entering state parliament and going straight into coalition government with the SPD.

The CDU scored a small increase to 35.2 percent, while their allies the Free Democrats slumped to 4.2 percent, losing all of their seats.

Die Linke scored only a tiny increase, polling 3 percent – once gain, not enough to enter parliament.

Die Linke has made strong gains in western Germany – winning seats in all but three states – but it is still much stronger in the east. Entering parliament in Baden-Württemberg – one of the country’s most wealthy and conservative states – was always going to be a challenge, but the result in Rheinland-Pfalz was clearly a disappointment.

The Greens – who have been consistently anti-nuclear since their foundation – were the clear beneficiaries of public concern about nuclear power after Fukushima.

The largest anti-nuclear protests in German history were held the day before the vote, with around 250,000 people marching in Germany’s four largest cities. Under the slogan “Fukushima Warns: Pull the Plug on all Nuclear Power Plants”, over 120,000 took to the streets of Berlin, 50,000 in Hamburg, 40,000 in Köln and upward of 40,000 marched in München.

Germany’s 17 nuclear plants account for 23 percent of it energy supply, but the power source has been overwhelmingly unpopular for the past quarter-century, ever since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster sprayed radioactive fallout all over central and western Europe.

Importantly, Baden-Württemberg is home to Neckarwestheim I – one of seven aging nuclear reactors that were quickly shut down in the wake of the Fukushima disaster and a massive protest of 60,000 people.

While Chancellor Merkel declared a 3 month “moratorium” on nuclear power, the move – given her well-known support for nuclear – was widely seen as opportunism in the lead up to the state polls. Local issues also played an important part in the Baden-Württemberg result.

The Greens have played a leading role in opposing the unpopular and expensive “Stuttgart 21” railway development, which would have destroyed a heritage train station and iconic parkland in the heart of Stuttgart, the state capital.

The violent repression of protests – including the use of water cannons and tear gas against children and pensioners – last year only hardened public opinion against the CDU government.

Education policy was also important, with the SPD and Greens calling for an expansion of free, quality public education.

The Baden-Württemberg result is a massive blow to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had already lost control of the German upper house after recent state elections went against her party.

Baden-Württemberg was the jewel in the CDU crown – the party had held government of the conservative state in Germany’s southwest since 1953, the economy was booming, and unemployment was barely 4 percent.

Some commentators are already suggesting that the loss makes Merkel’s position untenable, although it is quite possible that she will seek to hang on until the next federal election in 2013.

Merkel might have no choice, however, if things go poorly for the FDP's leader, the unpopular foreign minister Guido Westerwelle. His party is unhappy with the continued atrophying of their party’s support – down to only 4 percent nationally – and already some leading members are talking of the need for a “change in personnel”.

A change in the FDP leadership would further destabilise Merkel's already staggering government.

The Greens, on the other hand, are enjoying an historic high.

"We have written history," said Claudia Roth, joint national leader of the Green party, who described the result as "a resounding slap in the face" for Merkel's coalition government.

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