The result in Hamburg couldn’t have been more punishing for the Christian Democratic Union and for Chancellor Angela Merkel. The first of seven regional elections in Germany this year left no doubt about where German voters stand on a much larger issue: the euro crisis.
The race for mayor of the city-state, the equivalent of the premier in other German states, was won by the candidate from the opposition Social Democratic Party, which achieved something that is rare in Germany: an outright majority that can govern without a coalition partner. The CDU’s share of the vote was halved to 21 percent, while the SPD snared more than 48 percent.
The Christian Democrats in Hamburg and Berlin were quick to blame local issues for the astonishing protest vote. Education and port operations were supposed to have played a role. The first-time coalition between the CDU and the Greens in Hamburg was also considered an unusual political experiment. In short, there were enough local reasons to register a protest vote. But the electoral tsunami had deeper causes.
Voters are also taxpayers and cast ballots accordingly. Like any other citizen in the euro area, Germans in Hamburg, Berlin or Stuttgart want to know what lies ahead for their personal finances. While the German economy is the euro area’s main growth engine and unemployment is declining, the electorate is uneasy about the government’s loan guarantees for bailouts in Greece and Ireland. For months, they have been waiting to find out how Merkel intends to solve the euro area’s sovereign-debt crisis. The answer so far has been unconvincing.
Merkel has tried to position herself as heading a government capable of defending Germany’s interests inside the euro area. The Franco-German proposition for a “competitiveness pact” to coordinate economic and fiscal policy making is an attempt in that direction. But the voters in Hamburg didn’t get her message in the least.
For Merkel to survive politically, German taxpayers need to be reassured that the bailouts of Greece and Ireland won’t become permanent features of euro-area policy making. They want their government in Berlin to focus on the essentials. That means every country in the single-currency area must be held accountable for its own financial affairs. The establishment of permanent rescue mechanisms for profligate spenders and irresponsible financial institutions is overwhelmingly opposed by taxpayers and voters across Germany.
European monetary union is a limited-liability arrangement. So Germans don’t want to see the European Central Bank gradually converted into a bad bank buying up distressed sovereign debt from Greece, Ireland and Portugal. The resignation of Bundesbank President Axel Weber this month was a reminder of this deeply held opinion in Germany.
When the governing CDU loses so much of the electorate, it is obvious that local politics alone can’t explain the result. Voting with their feet and abandoning the party headed by Merkel in such high numbers is a reminder for the chancellor that she has yet to convince her constituency about larger issues on the agenda of German politics.
Since the Greek bailout in May 2010, Merkel has lost two regional elections in Germany ― the other CDU-led government to fall was in North Rhine-Westphalia. After another defeat, Merkel’s minority position in the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament, makes the passage of federal legislation more cumbersome and deal-making with opposition parties necessary.
Merkel will need German taxpayers on her side when continuing to provide loan guarantees to Greece, Ireland and possibly Portugal in the near future. So far, she has failed to win their support as voters. If she doesn’t convince German citizens soon, she will be punished at the ballot box and her position on the European stage may be damaged permanently.
Next month, a key regional election will take place in the southern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, where Merkel’s CDU is in coalition with her junior partner in Berlin, the Free Democratic Party. A defeat in that election may well mean Merkel’s time in the Chancellery will soon be up.
By Jens Bastian
Jens Bastian is a visiting fellow for Southeast Europe at the University of Oxford’s St. Antony’s College. The opinions expressed are his own. ― Ed.