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Hesse Election Results Confirm Doubts About Grand Coalition

Mon, 11/05/2018

Angela Merkel’s position will be under increased scrutiny. The German chancellor now has a small window of opportunity to initiate a retreat from the CDU party chairmanship on her own terms.

Executive Summary

Berlin, October 29, 2018: The grand coalition parties CDU and SPD have experienced a further upset at the regional election in Hesse. Both parties, traditionally the strongest political forces in Germany and currently tied together in a dysfunctional coalition on a federal level, suffered severe losses of more than 10 percent points each. It is likely that we will witness an intensified debate on the coalition’s future in the coming weeks. Angela Merkel’s position will be under increased scrutiny. The German chancellor now has a small window of opportunity to initiate a retreat from the CDU party chairmanship on her own terms.


Mirroring the Bavarian election two weeks ago, the Green party, junior partner of the CDU on a state level in Hesse, is the biggest winner of the election, almost doubling its share of the vote. The populist-­right party AfD clocked up large-­scale gains and is now represented in all 16 state parliaments. The liberal FDP and leftist Linke also improved their results. Despite the massive losses for his party, the incumbent prime minister Volker Bouffier (CDU) is set to continue as prime minister. Bouffier had led a harmonious two-­‐party coalition with the Greens for the past five years. This coalition option still has a wafer-­‐thin majority of one seat. Two further improbable options exist: a grand coalition (CDU and SPD) or a so-­called traffic-­light coalition (Greens, SPD and FDP).

Merkel’s Last Chance to Exit On Her Own Terms

It is expected that the fallout of this election will have severe repercussions on a federal level. The grand coalition is under even stronger pressure and may be headed for a break-­up. It is unlikely that this will occur immediately – especially Merkel can buy some time due to the fact that the CDU will most likely retain the post of prime minister in Hesse. But both parties know that continuing the
coalition may further undermine their positions. CDU/CSU and SPD had each internally agreed to postpone any serious discussion about personnel until the weeks after this last election of the year.

The leadership teams of both CDU and SPD are scheduled to hold retreats at the end of this week. For Angela Merkel, the coming days offer a final opportunity to declare a retreat from the party chairmanship before she may potentially face a serious challenge to her leadership. With a regular party convention ahead in early December, Merkel had in past weeks confirmed that she intends to run for re-­election as party chair, a post she regards as inextricably linked to the chancellorship. In her reasoning, a chancellor needs to lead her or his own party. Giving up this post would signal that she supports a speedy transition. Sources close to Merkel say that it is unlikely that she will step down on her own but point out that she is always good for a surprise move.

Potential successors include the party’s secretary-­‐general Annegret Kramp-­Karrenbauer, the prime minister of Northrhine-­‐Westphalia Armin Laschet and the health minister Jens Spahn. Both Kramp-­Karrenbauer and Spahn commented on the election on live television yesterday. Kramp-­Karrenbauer did not rule out running for the party chair in December and Spahn called for a reorientation of the party beyond changing personnel. A compromise candidate could be found in the party veteran and former finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Party grandees have in the past week moreover courted Friedrich Merz, an erstwhile rival of Merkel’s and former head of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group who now successfully works in the private sector. Merz purportedly was ready to step up if Bouffier lost the election. Merz is unlikely to challenge Merkel or enter an open race – sources state that his decision hinges on whether he is the sole viable candidate.

Any new chancellor would need to secure a new majority. It is highly unlikely that the SPD will agree to elect a new CDU chancellor. After all, the SPD also faces weeks of soul-­‐searching. The party leadership is under increasing pressure to exit the coalition – but does not have an interest in snap elections which may further weaken its position. The signals from the SPD are rather that they would prefer to return to an opposition role. The obvious alternative choice would be a Jamaica coalition on a federal level. Snap elections are highly unlikely. Parliament cannot dissolve itself, and President Frank-­Walter Steinmeier has already in 2017 displayed his reluctance to initiate a process leading to a new election. Should a general election nonetheless take place, it is probable that it will be scheduled for the same date as the election for the European Parliament in May 2019.

What is going to happen in the next days?

  • CDU: Party leadership retreat this week. Expect first signals on the party leadership contest at the convention in early December. Viable candidates against Merkel may announce themselves. Merkel herself may announce that she will no longer run (which would however be a surprise).
  • CSU: Bavarian prime minister Markus Söder needs to assemble a regional coalition with the Free Voters. Once this has been secured, party chair and federal interior minister Horst Seehofer may face a challenge to his leadership. Seehofer is unlikely to exit without damaging his rivals.
  • SPD: Party leadership retreat this week. Calls to exit the coalition will become louder. A special party conference may be convened to discuss the coalition’s future.

An analysis by: MSL – Public Affairs Practice Germany. For more information contact Wigan Salazar, CEO, MSL Germany – wigan.salazar@mslgroup.com

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