On October 9th, voters will go to the polls to determine the composition of Niedersachsen’s Landtag (state parliament). This is the fifth Landtagswahl of 2022, with elections in Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein, Nordrhein-Westfalen, and Sachsen having occurred earlier this year. While these contests can provide valuable insight into how different Germans feel about their federal government, regional differences tend to reduce their efficacy as measures.
THE LAST ELECTION (2017)
Landtagswahlen usually operate similarly to German federal elections, with one important difference: term length. While national elections are held every four years (i.e., 2017 to 2021) Bundesstaaten tend to elect their Landtags on a five year basis. Other aspects of the federal system, however, like the 5% hurdle, Erststimmen (direct mandates), and Zweitstimmen (D’Hondt Method, Landesliste-based proportional seat allocation) do apply at the state level.
Voters in Niedersachsen, located in Germany’s northwest, last went to the polls in 2017. That year’s elections, which did not coincide with the 2017 Bundestagswahl, were triggered earlier-than-expected after a Green MP left SPD Minister President Stephan Weil’s governing coalition, immobilizing its majority. As voting day approached, polls began to show the SPD dislodging the opposition CDU’s steady plurality.
The eventual results were mixed, with the Greens, CDU, and FDP losing ground while the SPD expanded its Fraktion. Mirroring its post-2013 national growth, the upstart AfD managed to surpass the 5% hurdle required to receive proportional seats in the Niedersachsen Landtag. Die Linke, one of Germany’s more prominent left-wing parties, visibly increased its Zweitstimmen share but failed to exceed the necessary threshold.
Due to the Greens’ palpable losses on election day, the red-green coalition crafted in 2013 came two seats short of being able to form a majority. SPD Minister President Stephan Weil, who had refused to resign after his government’s prior dissolution, decided instead to partner with the opposition CDU in a so-called Große Koalition. The coalition agreement was signed in November 2017. Weil was subsequently returned as Minister President following a lopsided vote.
PARTIES & SPITZENKANDIDATEN
Each of Germany’s prominent national parties also competes in Landtagswahlen. The SPD, one of the world’s oldest socialist factions, and the mainstream right-of-center Union (CDU/CSU) are the country’s two strongest parties. But their historical hegemony has shrunk in recent years, with Germany experiencing a sort of “multi-party” renaissance.
In the last federal election for instance, both the SPD and Union received less than 30% of the Zweitstimmen. The Union’s 24.1% constituted its worst ever national result.
The Greens and the AfD, meanwhile, have generally grown in the last few years. Green gains in the 2021 Bundestagswahl actually made the Ampel “Traffic Light” Coalition possible (SPD-Greens-FDP), bringing start-up politicians Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck to the forefront as ministers in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government. The FDP and die Linke have both remained important national parties in the background.
Niedersachsen’s party picture is much the same, with the SPD and CDU holding most of the cards and the remaining parties filling in the gaps.
Landtagswahlen and Bundestagswahlen both also rely on Spitzenkandidaten, figures who lead party lists and help to guide campaign messaging. The two main leaders are the same as in the last election: (SPD) Stephan Weil and (CDU) Bernd Althusmann.*
FDP Spitzenkandidat Stefan Birkner is also making his return. The other prominent parties have chosen new standard-bearers: (Green) Julia Hamburg & Christian Meyer, (AfD) Stefan Marzischewski-Drewes, and (die Linke) Jessica Kausen.
*The CSU, the second part of the national Union, is based in Bayern (Bavaria) and does not compete in Niedersachsen*
Unsurprisingly, the same issues affecting Germany as a whole have been critical parts of the Wahlkampf in Niedersachsen. They include energy troubles, inflation, and supply-chain issues exaggerated by the Russo-Ukrainian War. Voters have recently placed particular weight on the energy required for winter heating, which seemed threatened nationwide following the apparent sabotage of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline.
Weil and the SPD have focused on fighting climate change and promoting a renewable energy infrastructure in Niedersachsen by 2040. His party’s politics have generally mirrored those of Scholz and the national SPD, though with a predictably-larger focus on funds for local development. Althausmann and the CDU have also accepted the importance of renewable energy, but still consider fossil fuels crucial to ensure the short-term stability of supply.
The unpopularity of the federal Ampelkoalition has also played a role in the campaign, giving Althusmann and the CDU new political ammunition. Weil has countered his colleague’s sentiments, supporting Chancellor Scholz’s agenda while also stressing Niedersachsen’s own political agency separate from Berlin. As mentioned earlier, Landtagswahlen are often autonomous enough to deviate from the national mood. Weil seems to be banking on that independence.
While all of the recent polling shows the SPD as the strongest faction, the average suggests that Weil’s regional party will lose ground from its 2017 highpoint. The CDU is expected to be the second largest faction once again, though it is projected to lose seats. The Greens, who have experienced growth across Germany since the 2021 federal elections and have polled in the double-digit range in Niedersachsen, are expected to be the biggest winners.
When it comes to the other major parties, the AfD is the only one expected to expand its stake in the Landtag. Both the FDP and die Linke run the risk over finishing beneath the 5% hurdle necessary to acquire proportional seats. While die Linke missed the mark last election, the FDP has regularly been a part of the Niedersachsen Landtag for decades. It also happened to be the coalition partner of the CDU’s last government in Niedersachsen led by Minister President David McAllister.
Assuming the Greens finish in a strong third, they would hold all of the cards when it comes to forming a governing coalition. It seems that Hamburg and Meyer would be far more inclined to form a revived red-green coalition with Weil and the SPD than a band with Althausmann and the CDU. Nevertheless, Althausmann, recognizing his party’s situation, has made entreaties to his left-wing counterparts ahead of a potential black-green coalition.
STATE OF NATIONAL POLITICS
At the national level, the SPD and its Ampelkoalition have suffered the negative affects of unpopularity much more clearly than Weil and his government have. While the next Bundestagswahl is still three years away (2025), the current polls predict a marked gain for the CDU. If the vote were today, leader of the opposition Friedrich Merz would probably end up becoming Chancellor after a drawn-out coalition-building process.
One notable trend in current polling involves the Greens’ resilience. Despite being a crucial element of the oft-criticized Ampelkoalition, the Greens have not suffered the same position decline in polling as have their SPD colleagues. In fact, the current averages suggests that they would in fact gain seats in the Bundestag at the expense of the SPD if the election were held today. The AfD, which lost ground by Zweitstimmen in 2021, has also benefitted from momentum in the polls, rising to the fourth place spot.
My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying political science and international studies at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, aviation, and fitness.
Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or firstname.lastname@example.org