Another Electoral Setback for Germany’s Ruling Parties

The ruling conservative and liberal parties suffer major defeats in regional elections.

Germany’s ruling conservative and liberal parties suffered major defeats in regional elections this weekend. The loss is the latest in a series of setbacks for the country’s right-wing governing parties.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, the largest federal party, secured just 23 percent of the vote in northeast Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, down from 28.8 percent in 2006. The Social Democratic SPD surged from 30.2 to 35.7 percent while the opposition Greens also made gains.

The Free Democrat Party, Merkel’s coalition partner in Berlin, didn’t make the election threshold. Die Linke won 18.4 percent of the vote. The far left is traditionally popular in former East Germany.

Many conservative Germans feel that they have shouldered their fair share of the burden of bailing out the rest of Europe. The chancellor’s involvement in the financial rescue operations of Greece, Ireland and Portugal seems at odds with the values of austerity and prudence she champions at home. Yet the largest opposition parties favor closer European integration than she does.

The right-wing FDP is the only occasionally Euroskeptic among major German political parties but its base has all but evaporated.

The Social Democrats and Green party previously won a narrow majority in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg, otherwise a conservative stronghold. Last February, the Christian Democrats were decimated in local elections in Hamburg where the SPD secured an outright majority — a novelty in coalition heavy German politics.

The liberals and conservatives also suffered losses in the western industrial state of North Rhine-Westphalia last year which robbed their coalition of its upper house majority. According to recent polls, the liberals would receive less than 5 percent of the vote nationwide — a dismal performance after their historic win in 2009 when they claimed 15 percent of the national vote.

The fate of Germany’s liberals reflects a changing European political constellation in which voters are increasingly wary of compromise and drawn to the extremes of the spectrum.

Among the liberal party’s voters, leftists have been disillusioned by their support for spending cuts and found an alternative in the progressive Green party while moderates are attracted to the right where they find conservatives who a “tougher on crime” and share their concerns about immigration from Muslim countries and Eastern Europe. There doesn’t seem to be much room for social liberalism in the middle anymore.

Although Social Democrats and Greens are coalition partners across German local governments, the SPD may not return to government after federal elections in 2013. All European labor parties are struggling to regain relevance. The unpopularity of Merkel’s conservatives should not be mistaken for a vindication of the opposition party’s economic policy. The SPD hasn’t yet managed to reinvent itself as a broad and centrist platform for reform. Young urban professionals prefer the more cosmopolitan Green party while the Christian Democrats continue to enjoy broad support among a largely rural and aging constituency.