Sun Mar 27th, 2011 at 12:08:44 PM EST
On 27 March [update: today], the southwestern German states of Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg are holding regional elections. As usual, due to Germany's federal structure, in which the federal upper house consists of the representatives of the state governments, there is a country-level relevance, in particular on the energy front.
With the re-ignited nuclear debate in the wake of the post-earthquake crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, polls show last-minute gains for the Greens in both states, and the (neo)liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the hard-left Left Party are under danger of failing the 5% limit in both states.
In Rhineland-Palatinate, the likely outcome is another Social Democrat (SPD) led government under Germany's longest-serving prime minister, but with the Greens as new coalition partner. In Baden-Württemberg, the historically second most conservative state, however, polls indicate that something historic could emerge: an SPD-Greens coalition with the Greens as the senior partner, and a Green PM.
Update [2011-3-27 12:8:44 by DoDo]: Exit polls indeed indicate a Green-Red government in Baden-Württemberg, while the Rhineland-Palatinate Greens gained even more than predicted, see comments.
Rhineland-Palatinate used to be a solid base of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and was the home state of longtime chancellor Helmut Kohl. However, since 1991, it had SPD-led governments, and the PM is named Kurt Beck since 1994 – a longer rule than Kohl's. The pragmatist even rose to be boss of the federal SPD in the times of chancellor Angela Merkel's first, "Grand Coalition" government. However, he couldn't handle the SPD's internal crisis over its relationship with the Left Party that blew up after regional elections in neighbouring Hessen state, and the Schröderite old guard forced him to leave federal politics (see Coup among the German Social Democrats).
Since the 2006 elections, in which the Greens failed the 5% limit, the SPD was governing alone with absolute majority against a CDU, FDP opposition. Now polls predict big losses for the SPD, but it should still finish ahead of the CDU, and there will be double digits for the resurgent Greens, boosted a few more percentage points by the revived nuclear debate. For local context: while the state doesn't have nukes itself, right across the border river Rhine, in Hessen state, there are the two blocks of the Biblis plant. Those are among the oldest reactors (shut down for three months after the post-Fukushima decision of the Merkel government) and among the reactors with the worst safety record, and Biblis is among the four plants in Germany built in seismically active zones.
Other than that, the Rhineland-Palatinate campaign was rather uneventful. A party finance scandal in the local CDU that brought down its previous leader is still unforgotten.
It is relatively well known that the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Socialists (CSU) ruled Bavaria without a break since West Germany was established. However, Baden-Württemberg was also part of Catholic-conservative Southern Germany, and the ultra-conservative Baden-Württemberg CDU has an unbroken history in power, too, albeit mostly in coalitions.
The state's previous PM was Günther Oettinger, the present EU Commissioner for Energy. In his home state, his energy policy consisted of supporting established energy giants (mainly former state monopolist EnBW) by any means, advocating nuclear energy, and blocking wind power via zoning laws. His longtime inner-party detractor and successor, Stefan Mappus, continued Oettinger's line on energy. What's more, deviating from his neoliberal predecessor, last December he decided to protect EnBW against takeover by buying up 45% of its stocks, which would make the state co-owner of EnBW's nuclear plants. Baden-Württemberg has two nuclear plants, Neckarwestheim and Philippsburg, with two reactors each (one from both plants was shut down for three months after the post-Fukushima decision of the Merkel government). Both plants are among the four in Germany built in seismically active zones, in addition, Neckarwestheim is built atop limestone with active cavity formation. Thus the post-Fukushima nuclear debate is very much localised in the state.
Baden-Württemberg is also home to one of the strongest regional branches of the Greens. Baden-Württembergians were particularly influential in the 'pragmatist'/centrist Realo wing of the party, including current federal party co-chairman Cem Özdemir. At local level, the first major city in Germany with a Green major is Freiburg in the southwest of the state. Local successes in the sunniest German state are not unrelated to the boom in photovoltaics, with a number of major companies settled in the state.
More recently, the poll numbers of the Baden-Württemberg Greens benefited from the controversy over Stuttgart 21, a megaproject to replace state capital Stuttgart's surface rail terminus and its access tracks with an underground through station with tunnel accesses, freeing lots of prime real estate (see Trainblogging: Stuttgart 21 by epochepoque).
Beyond energy and Stuttgart 21, a third bone of contention is education. In federal Germany, education is a state-level responsibility. As in other states over the past years, left-wing parties campaign on a platform of abolishing tuition fees and reforming the traditional early selection school system.
Recent poll numbers indicate that, although the CDU shall remain the largest party, the SPD and Greens will have a majority – with the Greens slightly larger than the SPD! The narrowness of the result will also depend on whether the FDP and the Left Party will make it across the 5% limit.