Is the glass half full or half empty for German conservatives? Sunday’s losses by the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in state elections in northern Germany could have been a crushing defeat. It may instead be a less-disastrous-than-predicted performance by the party, which has dominated German politics for the past 16 years but more recently imploded under reports of slush funds and secret deals.
As expected, the Social Democrats held onto power in Schleswig-Holstein, a remote flatland state between the North and Baltic seas. Just months ago, polls there gave the CDU candidate a formidable lead against incumbent Gov. Heide Simonis, the only woman to govern a German state since 1993. That edge no doubt reflected public disenchantment with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s plans to prune back Germany’s costly and generous social security system. In state and local elections last fall, Schroeder’s Social Democrats suffered a series of humiliating losses.
But then came months of revelations of bribe-taking and money-laundering in the CDU that have disgraced former Prime Minister Helmut Kohl and forced the resignations of top party officials. The Schleswig-Holstein elections, as a result, quickly became a referendum of sorts on the future of the CDU, which has pitched Germany into its worst political crisis since World War II.
The actual results of Sunday’s election, however, are ambiguous. Simonis won, but her victory was not the rout predicted. Her Social Democrats picked up 43% of the vote, to 35% for the CDU. The Greens, who share power in the state, won 6.4%.
The CDU’s troubles clearly have boosted Schroeder’s Social Democrats. But Germans, like Americans, find cutting wasteful government spending in the abstract easier to embrace than eliminating specific programs. So it’s premature to sound a death knell for the CDU. Neither do the CDU’s troubles, so far at least, seem to have pushed German conservatives into the arms of the far right, as has happened in Austria with the strong showing last October by the extreme Freedom Party, which Joerg Haider led until his abrupt resignation Monday.
To avoid a drift toward extremism, Germany needs a credible opposition to the Social Democrats. But with the CDU’s leadership a shambles, the road ahead looks long and hard.