Even Angela Merkel, the normally unflappable German chancellor, was forced to admit that her party’s drubbing in the Hamburg city election on Sunday night was a “bitter defeat”.
Her centre-right Christian Democratic Union saw its vote in the city-state halve to 21 per cent, its worst result since the second world war, sending an ominous signal of party weakness in the first of seven state elections in Germany this year.
Outside Germany – and especially in Brussels, where Ms Merkel is in talks on a financial rescue for the eurozone – she is thought to be running scared of more defeats at the hands of German voters reluctant to bail out members of Europe’s common currency.
The timing is difficult. The poll in Baden-Württemberg, in south-west Germany – a CDU citadel since 1953 – is due on March 27, two days after the European Union summit that is supposed to decide on a “comprehensive package” for the eurozone.
But will it matter? Inside Germany, most observers are convinced that European issues did not affect the vote in Hamburg and will not decide the outcome in Baden-Württemberg either. “Germans are very provincial,” says Andreas Busch, professor of political science at Göttingen university. “We have hardly ever had an election focused on foreign policy.”
Gerd Langguth, professor of politics at Bonn university, agrees. Even in Baden-Württemberg, where the “Swabian housewife” is a symbol of strict budget discipline, “European politics will not play a role,” he says. In Hamburg, where a coalition between the CDU and the environmentalist Green party had collapsed in disarray, no fewer than 82 per cent of electors said they decided their vote on the basis of local issues.
“Our voters are smart,” says Olaf Scholz, leader of the victorious Social Democrats. “They vote on the issues we can decide in the city.”
Although the opposition SPD is languishing in national opinion polls, it staged a dramatic recovery in Hamburg to win an absolute majority. The result went against the national trend, however, in which the CDU has been gradually recovering with about 36 per cent support, the SPD has been stuck in the mid-20s, with the Greens snapping at their heels on more than 20 per cent.
The good news for the SPD, according to Manfred Güllner, head of the Forsa opinion polling institute, is that Mr Scholz proved he could win elections on the centre ground. The bad news, says Prof Busch, is that the party cannot rely on replicating its victory in other states.
Yet Hamburg has some clear lessons for Germany’s political parties.
The first, says Mr Güllner, is that for both the CDU and SPD – the two great “people’s parties” of postwar German politics – entering into coalition with the Greens has proved to be “the kiss of death”. The “astonishing” SPD result in Hamburg was driven by the determination of party loyalists not to be forced into a “red-green” coalition, prof Langguth says.
A second lesson for the CDU, says Prof Busch, was that its vote slumped because traditional supporters stayed at home. Such a reaction could upset Ms Merkel’s calculations in Baden-Württemberg, where opinion polls give the centre-right combination of CDU and Free Democrats 47 per cent in the polls, against a combined 44 per cent for the SPD and Greens.
Ms Merkel may fear that if she is seen to be over-generous with German taxpayers’ money in Brussels, her voters will stay at home.
But they will not vote for opposition parties. The SPD and Greens are if anything more pro-European than the CDU and FDP.
Mr Güllner is still doubtful that talks in Brussels will make any difference. “European politics has never played a role in German elections,” he says. “It is not election-relevant.”