State elections in Hamburg on February 15 saw the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) retain control of the traditionally left-wing city-state, while smaller parties of the left and right also made gains.
The SPD won 45.7 percent of the votes, equal to 58 seats in the city legislature – a result down 2.7 percent on the record margin it won in 2011. Having now lost the absolute majority the party held prior to the vote, SPD Mayor Olaf Scholz will need to find a coalition partner in order to form government.
The most likely candidate for this role is the Green Party, which has already indicated its willingness to enter a coalition. The Greens took 12.2 percent of the vote, a slight increase on the 2011 result.
On the other hand, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the biggest loser, dropping by 6.1 points to only 15.9 percent of the vote – barely enough to keep second place ahead of the Greens.
It was the party’s worst ever result in Hamburg and its worst result in a state election since 1959, and – when viewed in light of the 20 percent the CDU lost in 2011 – the result suggests that the conservatives are truly in crisis in the Hanseatic port city.
The socialist party Die Linke (“The Left”) increased its votes as well, taking 8.5 percent, compared to 6.7 in 2011, and increasing its seats in the state parliament from 8 to 11. The result is Die Linke’s best result in west Germany – with the exception of Saarland – since its formation in 2007.
Die Linke’s vote was strongest in the centre and west of the city, and among younger voters, in contrast to its support in east Germany, where it wins more support from older generations.
In the St. Pauli district, in central Hamburg – home of the left-wing football club FC St. Pauli – Die Linke topped the vote with 29.1 percent, well ahead of the SPD on 26 percent and the Greens on 24.7 percent.
The CDU, with only 4 percent, was outpolled by the satirical party Die PARTEI (“The Party”), which won 4.2 percent of the vote in the district.
The Hamburg vote – which only a turnout of only 57 percent – was a victory of sorts for the free-market fundamentalist Free Democrat Party (FDP), improving marginally to 7.4 percent.
After poor results in recent years saw the FDP lose all its seats in federal Bundestag for the first time ever in 2013, as well as in several state legislatures, the party now hopes that the result in Hamburg marks a turning point in its political fortunes.
The big surprise, however, was the rise in support for the rightwing eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (“Alternative for Germany” – AfD), which won 6.1 percent and 8 seats, entering a parliament in western Germany for the first time.
Many commentators had considered the AfD a largely eastern German phenomenon, where it has polled around the 10 percent mark in several states since it was formed two years ago. Last year, the AfD won seats in three state parliaments in the east, taking 12 percent in Saxony.
The AfD campaign in Hamburg adopted a more overtly right-wing tone, denouncing “radical Islamists” and immigration, and focusing heavily on law and order politics. The result has buoyed AfD hopes for increasing their representation elsewhere in Germany.
"If we can make it into Hamburg's assembly, we can succeed anywhere in Germany," AfD deputy leader Hans-Olaf Henkel said.
However, with only one more election due in Germany this year – in the city-state of Bremen – the AfD will have to wait to test that prediction.