Chancellor Angela Merkel may be the most dominant politician in Europe, most recently leading efforts to resolve the Ukraine conflict, yet that international clout doesn’t always translate into votes for her party back home.
On Sunday her Christian Democrats, or CDU, suffered their worst regional election result since World War II.
It managed to attract under 16 percent of the vote in the prosperous city-state of Hamburg. The party lost votes to the euroskeptic Alternative for Germany, or AfD, as well as to the business-friendly, Free Democrats, which broke a string of defeats to stay in the local parliament.
While Ms. Merkel’s party faced a highly popular incumbent mayor, Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats, in a traditional SPD stronghold, it was the only opposition party that did not manage to increase its vote.
Mr. Scholz lost his overall majority, winning 45.7 percent of the vote, and will have to seek a coalition partner. Yet his overall strong performance is already leading to calls for him to take on Ms. Merkel at the next federal election in 2017 -- instead of SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel.
The CDU only managed to win 15.9 percent of the vote in Hamburg, down 6 percentage points from 2011. The FDP reversed its streak of bad results, scoring 7.4 percent of the vote, enought to comfortably pass the 5 percent threshold required to enter state parliament. It was the first time since 2011 the FDP had managed that feat. "The FDP is back in the political game," said deputy party leader, Wolfgang Kubicki.
If we can make it into Hamburg’s parliament, then we can achieve it everywhere in Germany. Hans-Olaf Henkel, AfD deputy leader
Most worryingly for Ms. Merkel, the AfD, founded by a Hamburg economics professor, Bernhard Lucke, will take its first seats in a western German parliament, after winning 6.1 percent of the vote.
The party was founded in 2013 as an opposition to Ms. Merkel’s euro bailout of countries such as Greece, and only narrowly missed entering the federal parliament, or Bundestag, that same year. Last year, the AfD succeeded in entering three eastern German state parliaments.
Many in the CDU had hoped the party’s appeal could be confined to the eastern part of the country, but the Hamburg result indicates the AfD could establish itself and attract conservatives disappointed with Ms. Merkel’s centrist policies, such as her recent support of a federal minimum wage.
“If we can make it into Hamburg’s parliament, then we can achieve it everywhere in Germany,” AfD deputy leader Hans-Olaf Henkel told public broadcaster ZDF. “Mr. Scholz governs his city just like Ms. Merkel governs Germany. Both do nothing, are very popular, but don’t tackle the real problems.”
Paul Ziemiak, head of the CDU’s youth organization, warned that Ms. Merkel's party needed to take its defeat in the Hamburg vote seriously. It might not be representative for all of Germany, he told Reuters, “but it should be a wake-up call for the CDU.”
Others in the party dismissed the poor electoral showing as a regional aberration.
“It was not a nice result for the CDU in Hamburg,” said Michael Grosse-Brömer, the CDU’s parliamentary leader in the Bundestag. However, he pointed out that the CDU was much stronger on a national level. “We are stable at a federal level at over 40 percent,” he told broadcaster ARD on Sunday night. “This election is completely detached from the federal situation."
The party’s top candidate in the city, Dietrich Wersich, was regarded as having performed weakly. And the CDU continues to struggle to attract voters in bigger cities. Of the country’s 10 largest cities, nine are governed by SPD mayors.
Hamburg, a rich port city that is home to media companies, has long been a Social Democrat stronghold and Mr. Scholz’s business-friendly policies have done well there. Many voters told pollsters that they chose the SPD because of Mr. Scholz, who is regarded as trustworthy, likeable and honest.
A poll before Sunday’s election found that in a direct vote for mayor, Mr. Scholz would get 70 percent of the vote, while Mr. Werisch would only attract 14 percent.
The SPD had ruled alone in Hamburg since 2011. By narrowly missing a majority of seats -- the party won 59 out of a 121 seat chamber -- Mr. Scholz will now have to find a coalition partner.
The most likely alliance will be with the Greens, his preferred option.
However, before the elections, the mayor had admitted there were stumbling blocks, including the controversial dredging of the Elbe channel to the North Sea, which the city’s port needs to allow massive container ships to enter. The Greens oppose the move on environmental grounds.
The Greens insisted on Sunday evening that they were not willing to enter a governing coalition at any price. “For us, it depends on whether there is a change of direction in politics here in this city, when it comes to the environment and energy, but also economics policies,” the party’s co-leader in the city, Jens Kerstan, said.
Many in the SPD look to Mr. Scholz’s success in Hamburg and hope he could work his magic on a national level. After all, the party, which is currently in government with the CDU in a right-left coalition, is finding it difficult to get above around 25 percent in the opinion polls.
The Hamburg mayor, who had served as labor minister under Ms. Merkel in a previous coalition between the Social Democrats and CDU, has so far insisted he has no intention of returning to national politics.
For now, he says, he is staying in Hamburg. “I ran here for mayor, and that is what I want to be and not something else.”
Siobhán Dowling is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition and has covered German politics for a decade from Berlin. Handelsblatt reporters Silke Kersting, Frank Specht and Thomas Sigmund contributed to this piece. To contact the author: [email protected].