Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Germany: SPD wins Bremen election amid record low voter turnout

The German city-state of Bremen went to the polls on May 10
Germany’s centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has narrowly held on to power in the city of Bremen, Germany’s smallest state, after elections on May 10 saw the governing coalition returned with a diminished majority amidst a record low voter turnout.

While the SPD still topped the poll with 32.9 percent, its vote share was down 5.7 percent on the 2011 election, and marks its worst ever result in Bremen.

The SPD has governed the city-state – one of Germany’s main industrial centres – continuously since the end of World War Two. Bremen, with a population of only 655,000, has been hard hit by a gradual decline in the local shipbuilding industry and by weakened public finances.

It now suffers from Germany’s highest unemployment rate, at 11 percent, as well as high levels of debt. According to a recent report by German charity Der Paritätische Wohlfahrtsverband, nearly a quarter of people in Bremen live in poverty, more than any other German state.

The level of political engagement has suffered as a result, with barely fifty percent of the electorate turning out to vote in this election – the lowest turnout in any poll in modern Germany history. 

SPD Mayor Jens Böhrnsen resigned, despite winning
In the aftermath of the election, Bremen’s SPD Mayor, Jens Böhrnsen, submitted his resignation after a decade in the position, taking responsibility for the SPD’s “disappointing electoral result".

The SPD’s current coalition partners, the Greens, also suffered a significant setback in the poll, dropping 7.5 percent to 15 percent. Between them, the governing coalition has won a bare majority of 43 seats out of 83 in the state legislature.

The socialist party Die Linke (“the left”) increased its share of the vote by a 3.8 percent, winning 9.4 percent and taking eight seats in the state parliament.

The free-market fundamentalist Free Democratic Party also saw a swing of 4.2 percent, its 6.6 percent result lifting it above the 5 percent representation threshold required for it to return to the state parliament after losing all of its seats in 2011.
Only 50 percent of the Bremen electorate voted on May 10

Perhaps most notably, however, is the continued success of the right-wing eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD – “Alternative for Germany”) party, which stood in the state election for the first time since its formation in 2013.

While there had been speculation that national leadership problems might hurt the AfD’s chances, it won 5.5 percent of the vote and four seats.

Despite a recent shift to the right, with the party adopting a more strident anti-immigrant, law-and-order position, the AfD has now been elected to parliament in five consecutive state elections.

After winning around 10% of the votes in the eastern states of Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia, in February the AfD won seats in the prosperous city-state of Hamburg, its first success in a western state.

Conflicts within the party between more moderate eurosceptics and a fiercely anti-immigration, xenophobic wing are threatening to split the party, however, and AfD national leader Bernd Lucke recently stated that “The basic approaches of these two groups cannot be united.”

The centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of German Chancellor Angela Merkel – traditionally weak in the northern industrial cities – saw a modest gain of only 2.2 percent in Bremen, winning 22.6 percent overall despite concerted campaigning in the lead up to the election.

While the SPD has tried to represent the election as a purely local poll, the result underlines SPD concerns over its inability to dent Merkel’s popularity at a national level.

The SPD is currently the junior partner in a “grand coalition” federal government with the CDU, but with a slew of state elections due to be held next year before federal elections in 2017, it is keen to escape Merkel’s shadow, and present itself as a viable party of government in its own right once again.

The poor result in Bremen raises questions about the its ability to do this, with the SPD’s national poll ratings remain stuck at around 25 per cent, little changed from the last federal election in 2013, while the CDU is steady at around 40 per cent approval.

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