(Some updates below)
The two parties that jointly rule in the current German federal government competed against each other in two state assembly elections Sunday, Hesse and Lower Saxony.
In Hesse, the Christian Democratic party of the federal Chancellor (PM), Angela Merkel, suffered a major blow, dropping from 49% in 2003 to 36.5% today, according to exit polls. The other federal co-governing party, the Social Democrats, won 37%. (Yes, another super-close election!) The race for third place, between two parties that would each be the preferred partner of one of the main parties, is also close. It appears the Free Democrats are on around 9% and the Greens around 8%. Whether either potential coalition has garnered a majority of seats will depend, in part, on whether the Left party clears the 5% threshold. If it does, the state might end of up with a grand coalition mirroring the federal one. If it does not, the wasted votes could put one of blocs over the 50% mark in the state assembly.
The Christian Democrats in Hesse campaigned on tough-on-crime and anti-immigrant themes. The Social Democrats, according to a report I saw Friday on DW-TV (via Link TV), focused on the national minimum wage. I emphasize “national” because it is telling about how nationalized German politics is, despite the federal system, that a state election campaign would evidently turn on a national policy matter. (Crime and immigration, on the other hand, could be seen as partly national and partly local.)
Meanwhile, in Lower Saxony, the Christian Democrats also did rather poorly, compared to 2003: 43%, down from 48%. But, along with their current partner, the Free Democrats, they will retain control of the government. The Social Democrats likewise did poorly in Lower Saxony: 30% (previously 33%), which DW calls the party’s second worst showing in state elections in recent years.
The Left also is on the cusp of the threshold in Lower Saxony. In either state, it would be a first: The Left party did not exist in 2003; as the (small s, small d) social-democratic faction had not yet broken off from the right-drifting Social Democratic Party and joined up with the Party of Democratic Socialism. The latter was competitive mainly in the eastern states it formerly ruled.
Federal elections are not due until September, 2009, but these state elections will be much interpreted for whatever clues they may hold for national politics.
Majority: 56, hence possible:
(The latter is unlikely, though some chance of a Left-supported minority government.)
Note: I changed the title, as whether the result in Hesse is a setback to Merkel herself is very much debatable. The CDU leader in Hesse is considered a rival to Merkel. One suspects she is not too sad, really. On the other hand, the big gains by both the SPD and the Left can’t cheer her up too much.