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Germany’s ruling party lost this week’s Berlin election. What does this mean for the 2017 national elections?

- September 21, 2016
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and German Vice Chancellor, Economy and Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel arrive for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin on Aug. 31. (Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)

With a German federal election little more than a year away, how’s it looking for Chancellor Angela Merkel? That’s a good question. Over the weekend, her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), won a disappointing 17.6 percent of the vote in a regional election in Berlin, one of Germany’s 16 Länder (or states).

This was the CDU’s worst-ever result in the German capital. How much should we read into this — and other recent election defeats?

Regional elections; what’s the big deal?

Regional elections in Germany are significant as they dictate which party holds sway in the upper house, the Bundesrat. The Bundesrat is made up of regional representatives from the 16 states. In Germany, the party that wins a regional election decides which way that Land votes in the Bundesrat.

The Bundesrat is not merely a symbolic part of the German system; like the U.S. Senate, it has real power. If any legislation impinges on the rights of the states, the Bundesrat can block it. That used to be around 60 percent of all legislation passed. It’s now down to below 50 percent, but that’s still enough for a chamber controlled by the opposition to cause a chancellor real problems. Furthermore, in areas such as education, Germany’s regional governments also have the power to shape policy as they see fit — regardless of what the federal government might think.

So regional elections in Germany really do matter — and Germans watch them closely. Political scientists often puzzle over what drives voter thinking in these contests. Some analysts see regional elections as barometer elections, where Germans in a particular part of the country get the chance to pass judgment on the federal government. Other political scientists view these elections as tools to “balance” the power of the lower chamber (the Bundestag) by sending politicians of a different political persuasion to the Bundesrat.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/06/24/britain-wants-a-sweetheart-deal-after-brexit-fat-chance-germany-will-give-it-one/”]Britain wants a sweetheart deal after Brexit. Fat chance Germany will give it one.[/interstitial_link]

But most of these analyses start from the premise that regional elections, like elections to the European Parliament, are “second order.” In other words, what matters most is what’s going on in the federal arena. It’s the clocks in Berlin that help you tell the time in Dortmund, Dresden and Düsseldorf.

Germany’s governing parties don’t do well in regional elections…

My research with Charlie Jeffery takes a closer look at Germany’s election cycles to investigate when national political factors were more (or less) likely to influence regional election results. We looked at election results in all German regions between 1949 and 1998, comparing the performances of the main parties in regional and federal elections in each of the states.

We measured a party’s performance in a regional election against its performance in the national elections that preceded and followed that contest. If a party managed 32 percent in national election A and 36 percent in national election B, the “expected vote” in the regional election in between those contests would be 34 percent. We were simply interested in whether parties did better or worse than expected in these regional elections.

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We found a very clear pattern — parties in national government did worse than would have been expected in all but two regional elections from 1949 to 1990. In the first decade after unification, the pattern remained broadly similar; there was still a clear anti-government effect and although there were some outlier results, the pattern remained consistent. Governing parties at the national level struggled across the board in regional elections, and they struggled most mid-term.

… but need to pay attention to regional politics

Other political scientists have updated and enhanced our original findings. The conclusions we drew over a decade ago nonetheless still hold true — governing parties tend to do poorly in regional elections, where smaller parties in particular tend to shine.

Furthermore, Arjan Schakel and Charlie Jeffery argue in another fascinating paper that in 2,933 regional elections across 17 countries, national politics clearly trumped regional politics in shaping outcomes only around 1 in 5 times. So, while CDU supporters shouldn’t write off recent election losses as trivial, they should also be aware that reading bad results across from one level to another makes little sense.

Regional personalities, policies and problems shape each and every regional contest. The dismal failure, for example, of the Berlin Land government to finish building an overbudget and long overdue new airport certainly counted against the CDU and its partner in government, the Social Democrats.

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Voters generally regarded the CDU’s leader (or Spitzenkandidat) in Berlin, Frank Henkel, as underwhelming, and Henkel regularly polled behind his Social Democrat counterpart, Michael Müller. The CDU also ran a lackluster campaign — its campaign song, in particular, generated a whole load of scorn.

To 2017 and beyond!

Merkel’s CDU is finding the political going tough at the moment. But that doesn’t mean that next year’s federal elections will see the CDU needing to play catch-up. Indeed, despite all its problems, the CDU remains 8-10 percent ahead of its nearest rival in national opening polls.

If the way governing parties perform in Germany’s regional elections across time is any sort of indicator, then the smart money has the CDU bouncing back strongly and remaining in government come September 2017.

Dan Hough is a professor of politics at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom. He is also director of the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption (SCSC). He tweets at @thedanhough.