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Election Analysis: Hesse 2018

On 28th of October 2018 the parliament in German state Hesse was reelected.

Voter turnout (67.3 percent) was relatively high, most likely because voters wanted to give the federal coalition government a warning.

Even though nothing hinted at a political change in the state, the Conservative Green government nearly lost its majority. After preliminary results the coalition gained an extremely narrow majority of 69 out of only 137 seats.


The CDU (Christian Conservative Union) must accept a historical defeat in Hesse. Only in 1962 and 1996 the party gained less than 30 percent of the votes. The results are, nonetheless, represented as relative success since the party remains strongest force and further delegates the Minister President. Current officeholder Volker Bouffier is considered a “man of Merkel”. Should he remain in office the political pressure on the Chancellor would decrease.  At the same time the losses of the party originate from state politics. Voters lost their trust in the competence of the party, deeming the Greens more likely to deal with important issues.

In Hesse ends the cycle in which the CDU had to cope with the secession of its original potential voters. After the party had prescribed itself a modernisation, not least to reconquer voters in urban centres, part of the votership moved to the rightwing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD). This resembles the experience of the SPD (Social Democratic Party) with the left party (DIE LINKE). A party to the right of the Conservatives prevailed in election after election without this momentum being broken so far. The Conservatives – in view of coming elections - will have to come to a strategic decision whether, how and with whom they want to prevent this party from striving for governmental power; or whether they want to form coalitions with it and create new majorities. This inner-party issue hums in the background while publicly the term of Angela Merkel is debated.

The SPD undercuts its historically worst result of 2009 again by several percentage points, eventually receives 20 percent and some 100 votes less then the Greens. The results do not imply a halt to the free fall of the SPD, least of all a turn for the better.  At second glance current results (13 percent) barely differ from the already devastating results of 2009 (14 percent). The SPD’s capability of committing voters is vanishing for a while already. Its role in federal government is mainly responsible for this defeat. The party is neither considered powerful to solve the conflict between the two conservative parties (Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian junior partner Christian Social Union) nor does it present a sweeping idea as to why it is in government at all. Officials warily confirmed on election night that there might not be as much time as planned for the necessary “renewal”. It is certainly true that an immediate exit from the government coalition would not help the party because it would not answer the decisive question where the strength and power should come from for the refoundation of a social democratic party. Once, social democratic goals were full employment – which was silently abandoned in the 80s, and the guarantee of claims acquired during work life – which was declared impossbile with the Agenda 2010. In both cases the message of social democracy was: there is not enough power to fulfill the role of protective force successfully anymore.

The Greens (Grüne) are the big winners. They receive nearly 20 percent, are a tad ahead of the Social Democrats and can remain in government. For the first time as well they get several direct mandates and become strongest force in urban areas. Among other reasons this is due to their prime candidate’s success to present the Greens to liberal conservative voters as a pragmatic as well as goal-oriented governing party. By being in power the party lost the function as ideological bogeyman for conservative opponents. The Greens, on federal as well as on state level, seem to succeed in “reanimating the democratic centre” which is keener on moderation of extremes, down-to-earthness and balancing of interests then distinctive programmatic content. Some key issues remain important to appeal to the political, democratic centre of society: social and ecological modernsation must be focal points and the need for representation needs to be served. This strategy is successful since SPD and CDU are, for different reasons, not capable to implement it. The Greens are stronger among women, in urban centres and higher educated strata.

The AfD (Alternative for Germany) is likewise a big winner of this night, entering parliament as fourth strongest force for the first time. Now, the party is represented in all 16 Land parliaments – which no other party ever achieved within five years after its foundation. The party is considered to represent the former positions of the CDU. Most of its voters were formally giving their voice to the Conservatives. This was made possible because the campaign banked stronger on a conservative-liberal tone then on the “völkisch”-nationalist party wing. As the only party it served the new alleged conflict line between “cosmopolitans/winners of globalisation” versus “communitarianists/losers of globalisation” offensively. The party was not one for “the winners of globalisation in their penthouse but the people living in council housing”, as party chair Meuthen put it.

In some communities the party gains nearly 25 percent. May the reasons for their voters be manifold; such results cannot anymore be treated as a purely Eastern German phenomenon.

The party DIE LINKE is one of the “little winners”. For the fourth time it succeeds in entering the parliament and gains some percentage points despite a difficult political situation. Like in no other West German territorial state the party has created a stable political foundation and is considered a political factor – not least due to Land parliamentary leader Janine Wissler. The success, thus, has more to do with the Land level; the party cannot profit from the dissatisfaction with the federal government. In single constituencies such as the towns Kassel, Marburg, Frankfurt it gains double digit results. The highest of them in district Frankfurt V (13.5 percent).

The FDP (Liberals) as the bigger “little winner” enters parliament even stronger but cannot compete with its 2009 results. The party of Christian Lindner has not yet found a way to recover from its downfall in 2013. In 2009 the party seemed promising for disappointed former CDU and SPD voters. In the government coalition it got lost in petty tax gifts leading to vote gains for the CDU.

Is there a shift to the right in the Hessian party landscape?

CDU and AfD combined gain less votes than the CDU under former Minister President Roland Koch for example. The Hessian CDU always was a strong value based and national conservative party. This was not the focus anymore in the “modernised” CDU. All parties right from the centre combined gained 56.7 percent in 2003, 46.2 percent in 2008 and 53.4 percent in 2009 (CDU and FDP). In 2013 CDU, FDP and AfD combined gained 47.4 percent and this year 47.6 percent. A clear shift of votes to the right cannot be deducted here. Rather, already existing right wing attitudes and positions are gathering under a new party flag. What has been said before under the breath is now voiced publicly and more radically but does not spread further.

The results allow several coalition options. A continuation of the conservative-green government remains only just possible.