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Merkel’s party suffers defeat in Hamburg

February 21, 2011

There are few countries in the world where local, provincial elections garner more attention than Germany. This is due to several reasons. First, Germany is a federal system in which the regional, or Lander, governments actually have real authority. Second, state election results have an indirect bearing on the composition of the Bundesrat, which is delegated by Lander governments. Third, in many countries (such as the U.S.), local elections are held simultaneously with national ones; thus, the latter tend to overshadow the former. In Germany, by contrast, provincial elections are held separately from national ones, so they are covered more extensively in the German press. Finally, many observers argue that local election results often reveal trends about public opinion and more general national trends.

Local elections are covered especially extensively when they deliver unexpected results, as was the case with the election Sunday in the city-state of Hamburg. In it, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) suffered a thrashing at the hands of their chief rivals, the Social Democrats. The CDU’s support fell by 22% from the last election in the region. Der Spiegel has a nice summary plus a roundup of what various sources are saying about it. The main debate seems to over the extent to which the result is due to local or national factors. Merkel and her colleagues in the federal government are obviously eager to portray it as the former, and argue that the Hamburg voters’ verdict offers no evidence of wider discontent with CDU rule. Indeed, the former CDU mayor of Hamburg, Ole von Beust, resigned amidst scandal over some failed education reforms implemented by the CDU-Green Party coalition that controlled the city.

Supporters of the national thesis point to the scale of the CDU’s defeat plus the growing discontent of voters nationwide with economic conditions. Whether the Hamburg result was a function of local idiosyncrasies or larger national trends will be revealed in the near future, as six more Lander will elect legislatures in 2011. Observers are especially focused on Baden-Wurttemberg, which will hold an election on March 27. The state has been a CDU stronghold for decades, but analysts see a Social Democrat-Green takeover as a distinct possibility.

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