German Voters Just Dealt Merkel’s Party a Body Blow

Ahead of national elections in September, the CDU has to decide where to go from here.

Armin Laschet, chairman of Germany's German Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, attends a press conference in Berlin on March 15.
Armin Laschet, chairman of Germany's German Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, attends a press conference in Berlin on March 15. Michael Sohn/AFP/Getty Images

This Sunday, voters in Germany’s Baden-Württemberg and neighboring Rhineland-Palatinate went to the polls for state elections. In Baden-Württemberg, they dealt Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a serious blow. The results are seen as a bellwether for Germany’s federal elections, which are coming up in September and which, for the first time in a decade and a half, will not feature Merkel at the top of the CDU ticket.

Baden-Württemberg is home to such industry giants as Daimler and SAP. It is also home to Germany’s only Green-led government, which has now strengthened its power following a first-place result in this weekend’s vote. Going forward, it will have a renewed mandate to design a coalition government for the next five years. And in September, the Greens are likely to continue their surge. Although some may even speculate about the potential for a Green chancellor, the party may be more likely to serve as kingmaker to a bigger party.

Yet, realistically, all bets are off in an election year with a raging pandemic. Just a few months ago, CDU-Greens coalition government seemed predestined to follow Merkel’s third coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SPD). But Berlin’s botched coronavirus vaccination rollout and scandals involving the procurement of masks left the CDU with a historic loss at the polls in Baden-Württemberg.

The downward slide could continue—especially with two cabinet ministers in Berlin under fire for mismanagement of the pandemic and several corruption scandals dogging the CDU. If the party loses further support, it would be hard-pressed to shape its desired coalition. It may even be excluded from governing on the federal level. In Baden-Württemberg, the Greens could discontinue their coalition with the CDU and opt to join with the SPD and Free Democratic Party (FDP), Germany’s liberal party, to form a government

Beyond the headline-grabbing victories and losses, Baden-Württemberg also offers trends to watch for Germany’s smaller parties. For example, this will be a make-or-break year for Germany’s newest party, the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD). Five years ago, the AfD received 15 percent of the vote in Baden-Württemberg to become the largest opposition party in the state legislature. In 2017, it had a repeat performance by capturing nearly 13 percent of the national electorate to claim the same title in the German parliament.

After Sunday, the AfD appears to have pulled in just under 10 percent of the vote in Baden-Württemberg, which means the party may well be losing steam. Infighting and the pandemic have drowned out its anti-immigrant messaging and sidelined the party leadership, who dismissed the Nazi era as a mere “speck of bird poop” in German history. Some Germans will also think twice before casting their vote for a party that the domestic intelligence agency is seeking to put under surveillance for far-right extremism within its ranks.

Add to the mix the rebirth of the FDP, which gained 2 percentage points in Baden-Württemberg, and the AfD could lose its coveted position as opposition leader and be appropriately relegated to the fringes.

In the run-up to the latest vote, the AfD based its campaign on the spread of conspiracy theories and information manipulation. It has suggested that the government’s COVID-19 contact-tracing app is being used for purposes other than infection tracking and has falsely claimed that vaccinations will become mandatory. The AfD has also called the coronavirus a convenient excuse for a government that always wanted to curtail liberties around the country, and it has found fertile ground in a state that launched the nationwide Querdenken (“lateral thinking”) movement. Querdenken protests have attracted a broad swath of German society ranging from small-business owners criticizing lockdown measures to vaccine opponents and extremist groups. This past weekend, anti-lockdown protests took place all over the country, with 12 police officers injured in Dresden. More unrest could turn voters off from the AfD but reinforce displeasure with Berlin’s handling of the pandemic.

In addition to further domestic information manipulation, intelligence agencies are also bracing for interference from foreign powers this election year. The European Union’s External Action Service recently issued a report singling out Germany as a top target for Russian disinformation. China also became a topic of debate in Baden-Württemberg, since Huawei sponsored the local CDU party convention and the FDP has voiced concern about Chinese influence through local Confucius Institutes. The Green party has proposed strengthening media education to counter fake news and other forms of disinformation.

As the CDU looks ahead to September, it will be hard-pressed to blame its luck on the popularity of the Greens or the rise of the FDP. Skillful management of the first phase of the pandemic last spring had lifted Merkel and the CDU’s fortunes. At one point, the chancellor had favorability ratings of over 70 percent. But now, with lockdowns ongoing, a third wave of infections taking off, and vaccinations in short supply, it won’t be smooth sailing for the CDU.

The party also lacks a strong figure to take over for Merkel. Once a rising star within the CDU, Health Minister Jens Spahn has been caught flat-footed for promises not kept when it comes to the vaccine rollout and testing. And Merkel’s loyal lieutenant Economic Minister Peter Altmaier has been criticized for the slow disbursement of aid to businesses during the pandemic. Finally, the newly elected party chairman, Armin Laschet, has not won the full confidence of CDU members to be their chancellor candidate, which could mean the party will recruit Bavaria’s state premier Markus Söder, who has better favorability ratings.

Voters know that Merkel won’t be on the ballot this fall, and removing her from the lineup shows a CDU much in need of a shakeup. Complacency might have set in after 16 years with Merkel in charge of the country, but Baden-Württemberg shows that the conservatives no longer have an automatic lock on the chancellery.

Sudha David-Wilp is a senior trans-Atlantic fellow and deputy director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.