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Home Opinion It’s not just the economy, stupid
State of the Left - Germany

It’s not just the economy, stupid

Felix Hörisch - 19 May 2016

A variety of structural factors contributed to a disappointing result for the SPD in the German state of Baden-Württemberg, despite their astute marshalling of the economy while in government

A good track record in office isn’t, it seems, sufficient alone to win elections. After five years of successfully governing in a Green-Red coalition, the SPD took a beating in the federal state of Baden-Württemberg, reaching only 12.7 per cent in March’s election. In order to regain support, the SPD will have to tirelessly compete for its former supporters, not to mention non- and first-time voters. The party will have to find effective ways to reactivate citizen engagement, particularly in areas that have traditionally been SPD strongholds.

Why the SPD experienced such a shattering defeat, losing more than 10 percentage points in the state elections in Baden-Württemberg, is a question that has yet to be definitively an-swered. What is certain, however, is that the defeat was not primarily caused by the poor performance of the Green-Red coalition.

Quite to the contrary, the achievements of the Green-Red coalition were highly palpable: in their five years of governing, Baden-Württemberg witnessed high growth and low unem-ployment rates – far lower than average, even when compared to other large western Ger-man states. The budget was frequently balanced. Opinion polls, moreover, demonstrated that the Green-Red coalition was also well-liked. Furthermore, within the Green-Red coali-tion, the SPD was able to push through numerous classic social democratic policies in favour of the (industrial) workforce, for example: a wage loyalty law and an increase in the land purchase tax.

Many of these measures were intended to stabilise the revenue side of the state budget of Baden-Württemberg without having to cut spending for education, administration and inte-gration policies. The devastating result of 12.7 per cent was, thus, not a reflection of the pol-icies pursued, but has two structural causes reaching far beyond Baden-Württemberg in terms of their relevance for the social democratic movement.

The first structural cause is the ‘junior partner effect’. Wedged between a popular prime minister and the opposition, it is always very difficult for a smaller coalition partner to run a successful election campaign. This was clearly the case for the SPD in Baden-Württemberg. Although electoral researchers tell us time and time again that ‘it’s the economy, stupid’, this does not ring true for all coalition partners.

With rising levels of competition over the public’s attention, it is often challenging for re-gional politics to capture people’s interest. As a result, positive developments and economic improvements are frequently credited solely to the head of government and his or her party, and not the coalition as a whole. Apart from that, it is also harder for a junior partner within a coalition than it is for an opposition party to present its own ideas and positions during the election campaign. The price at which a party is willing to enter a coalition as a junior partner must therefore always be considered.

Despite the increasing fragmentation of the German party system, grand coalitions should remain the exception and not become the rule. The strong fragmentation of the party sys-tem should rather be an occasion to test out new coalition models as well as institutional innovations such as minority governments. This requires the commitment of all parties of the democratic political spectrum. The so-called ‘Jamaica coalition’ in Saarland, the Black-Green coalition in Hesse and the Red-Red-Green-coalition in Thuringia are initial signs that this process has already begun. Another possibility to cope with the structural challenges junior partners face would be to nominate a top candidate who does not belong to the cabi-net. At the state level, a successful lord mayor would be one option. For example, during the election campaign he or she could emphasise successful programmes from his or her city. Moreover, the mayor would have an incumbency bonus and would not be bound to the dis-cipline of the cabinet.

The second structural cause of the SPD’s defeat at the polls can be traced back to the fact that Social Democrats are disproportionately affected by the asymmetric decline in turnout. Although turnout rose slightly from 66 to 70 per cent in the south west, it was still far below the level of previous elections. The political scientist Armin Schäfer has shown that the de-cline in turnout follows an asymmetric pattern. During the 1980s participation rates at the federal elections were above 90 per cent, regardless of income percentile. Over the last decades, however, turnout has fallen particularly among the lower social strata. While the highest earners still turn out to vote on average at rates exceeding 90 per cent, turnout by the middle classes has sunk to around 80 per cent. Within the lowest income segment only two out of three eligible voters go to the polls at federal elections. This downward participatory trend is even stronger for some state and local elections. The SPD is particularly affected by this development and suffers more than the Green party, for example, whose voters have the highest average incomes. Accordingly, we can assume that the SPD’s defeat would have been even heftier had turnout been lower.

The current structure of party competition, moreover, serves to amplify this effect. Baden-Württemberg’s prime minister Winfried Kretschmann succeeded in steering the Green party to the centre and thereby gained new voters. In contrast to the SPD, he did not have to fear that his voters would boycott the elections or that major shares of the left would opt for other parties. Finally, no party is more to the left and more ecologically orientated than the Green party: accordingly, there is no viable political alternative within the party spectrum for the Greens. The SPD’s situation, on the other hand, is quite different. Attempts to win over voters from other parties, particularly from the centre, can only be regarded as one part of a successful social democratic strategy.

It is at least equally important to regain former supporters as well as non- and first-time voters. In order to reach this goal, an increase of the voter turnout in former strongholds of the SPD is of utmost importance. Therefore, not only the centre of the society, for which nearly all German parties try to compete, is decisive to win elections. Regaining the reliable support of the centre left should rather be the top priority — at least in the short run. To this end it is necessary to increase targeted efforts in those districts that were traditional SPD strongholds. These efforts must be reflected in the SPD’s positions and policy priorities – which should particularly address the interests of the core clientele – as well as during the election campaigns, for example in terms of the emphases of campaign posters, information stands and street campaigning in those districts.

There remains however the risk that the widening of socially stratified electoral participation and societal divisions exist in a mutually reinforcing relationship. Consequently, declining turnout not only poses a challenge for the SPD, but for society as a whole. For this reason, institutional innovations aimed at increasing voter turnout should be discussed – such as compulsory voting, as suggested by Armin Schäfer. A positive incentive system, for instance in the form of modest compensation for the expenses associated with participation at an election, might be another possibility, as well as the simplification of election procedures or longer opening hours of the polling stations.

The SPD in Baden-Württemberg should now make use of the period of rule by the Green-Black coalition by positioning itself as a constructive opposition to the left of the coalition government. In order to regain the support of their core clientele as well as additional elec-toral groups, it is imperative that the SPD offers social democratic alternatives. As a small coalition partner, it will be difficult for the conservative Christian Democratic party to make its mark. The SPD should therefore attempt to take advantage of the new structure of party competition. The challenge for the SPD will be to make its voice heard over the populist Al-ternative für Deutschland as a fourth power in the state parliament by producing thoughtfull, constructive and social democratic alternative proposals.

These strategies, however, will only work if the SPD acknowledges the structural causes of its shattering defeat. Only by doing so will the party’s positive track record pay off at the ballot box in future elections.

Felix Hörisch is a lecturer at the Institute of Political Science, University of Heidelberg

This article was first published in German by Berliner Republik

This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's regular insight bulletin reporting from across the world of social democratic politics

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