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Politics Weekly: State elections, support for Israel, and emerging parties
After taking a few months of parental leave over the summer I’m back and writing this regular newsletter on German politics.
Here are some questions you may have been asking yourself about Germany this week.
How do Germans view the latest round of violence in Israel?
Germany repeatedly emphasises that Israeli security is German “Staatsräson” (reason of state). While this grandiose phrase from the age of absolute monarchies is a peculiar one to apply to modern statecraft, it was first used by Angela Merkel in 2008 and has been repeated regularly since without anyone ever really explaining what it would mean in practice
In a public statement on Sunday, Olaf Scholz said that “Israel’s security is German Staatsräson, that applies in particular in difficult hours like these. And we will act accordingly.”
The rest of his statement gave few clues as to what Germany would do though. Other than a signal of support for Israel to “pursue its attackers” and a pledge to support Egyptian efforts at “de-escalation,” the speech gave little away.
What German support is likely to mean in reality is trying to keep Israel’s back free on the international stage in the weeks ahead when civilian casualties on the Palestinian side will almost inevitably come to dwarf those suffered by Israel.
Scholz can certainly rely on the support of the German press, which is much more uniformly pro-Israel than in many other western countries. For instance, while The Guardian in the UK refrained from calling the Hamas attack terrorism and used its editorial pages to give the Israeli government the blame, Germany’s leading liberal outlet, Der Spiegel, described it as an attack by “barbarians against civilisation.”
It is less clear whether the German public will support what Scholz described as an “unbreakable” commitment - particularly one to Israeli PM Bibi Netanyahu, who has been pursuing increasingly aggressive settler policies in recent years. Polling released by the Bertelsmann Stiftung last year came to the disturbing result that Israelis are more likely to have a positive opinion of Germany than the other way round. The polling also showed that only 12 percent of Germans support the current policy of unconditional support for the government in Jerusalem.
Here is a more detailed blog post I wrote on German support for Israel back in 2021.
Who was the big winner of Sunday’s state elections in Bavaria and Hesse?
The conservative alliance of CDU and CSU won both of the elections by clear margins. But, while it was a good result for the party led for many years by Angela Merkel in Hesse, it felt like a defeat for the CSU in Bavaria. That’s because the party often called the CDU’s ‘little sister’ is used to winning over 40 percent in Bavaria, where they have held power since the end of the Second World War.
Sunday’s result, 36 percent, was the worst in the party’s history. Anything under 40 percent is considered to be a failure.
In Hesse, home state of Germany’s banks and biggest airport, the CDU won less of the vote - 35 percent - but the result still feels like more of a victory given that it was a marked improvement on the last election in 2018 when the CDU won 27 percent.
The far-Right Alternative for Germany will certainly be pleased with their result and have been declared the real winners by several news outlets. They are now the second largest party in Hessen, where they will have 28 of the seats in the 133-seat chamber. In Bavaria, the AfD came in equal third with the Greens on 14.5 percent.
The votes in two states that make up nearly a quarter of the German population show that the far-Right party can translate their strong polling figures of recent months into real election gains.
Big losers of the evening were indisputably all the parties in Olaf Scholz’ traffic light coalition. Mr Scholz’ Social Democrats got a pasting in Hesse, where they were led by his interior minister Nancy Faeser. Finishing in third behind the AfD in one of the wealthiest states in the country is a humiliation for Mr Scholz’ party.
The Free Democrats, who hold the finance ministry in Mr Scholz’ government, look like they might be on their way to extinction. They won just three percent of the vote in Bavaria and scraped into the Hessian state parliament by a few thousand votes.
The real winners though might well be a party you have possibly never heard of.
The Freie Wähler came in second place in Bavaria, where they secured 16 percent of the vote. Already the junior partner to the CSU for the past five years, with an improved vote share they will now get an extra cabinet seat in Munich.
In Hesse, the Freie Wähler may not have made it into the state parliament, but they won 40 percent more votes than in 2018 and thus finished ahead of the hard-left Linke party.
These results provide the perfect opening for the Freie Wähler, who were set up to fight for more local government back in the 1940s and have only recently dipped their toes into state politics in other southern states.
A conservative grassroots party, they could be the answer to the growing conundrum that the CDU face of how to build conservative majorities without having to rely on the AfD.
With the AfD ever stronger, the CDU are being forced into coalitions with left-wing parties due to the fact that they refuse to work with the far-Right party. But the result is a weakening of their support among conservative voters.
Freie Wähler leader Hubert Aiwanger talked before the elections about taking his party into national politics. The time has never been more opportune.
The German Review is a regular newsletter on German politics and current affairs written by Jörg Luyken, an independent journalist who has been based in Berlin since 2014.
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