German Voters Are Giving Their First Verdict on Political Chaos

Patrick Donahue
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German Voters Are Giving Their First Verdict on Political Chaos

(Bloomberg) -- Germany has been mired in political turmoil, and a regional vote on Sunday will give an early indication of the fallout.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s succession plan collapsed on Feb. 10 when her chosen heir, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, unexpectedly announced she would resign as head of the Christian Democratic Union.

Voters in the city-state of Hamburg were going to the polls a day before CDU leaders are due to move forward with a plan to select a new party head. Whoever wins the post is likely to be the CDU candidate to run for chancellor in the next national election.

Germany’s political establishment was rocked this month after the CDU’s chapter in Thuringia cast its lot in with the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany, or AfD, to install the eastern state’s premier. The fallout sent shock waves across the nation and was the main catalyst for Kramp-Karrenbauer’s resignation.

To add to the sense of chaos, tensions around extremist activity in Germany intensified late Wednesday, when an assailant killed 11 people, including himself, in the city of Hanau near Frankfurt. Authorities said the lone gunman, a 43-year-old German national, was motivated by xenophobia. Merkel vowed to eradicate such racist “poison.”

In Thuringia, Merkel’s party sought to restore a semblance of stability on Friday by agreeing to support the re-election of the previous state premier, whose anti-capitalist Left party is anathema to the Christian Democrats at the national level. The deal would avoid relying on AfD votes in the state legislature.

The plan was clouded on Saturday as several national CDU leaders, including former Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, raised objections, saying it would harm the party’s credibility.

Biggest Port

Hamburg, Germany’s second-largest city with 1.8 million inhabitants, has been led by the Social Democrats since 2011. Polls show the SPD -- the junior partner in Merkel’s national coalition -- maintaining a lead, albeit with less support than the 45.6% secured in the 2015 election.

While the city-state isn’t representative of the parties’ national standings, a strong showing -- or even victory -- by the Greens, or a weak performance by the CDU, could reverberate across the country.

The SPD had 34% support in Hamburg, with the Greens trailing by only two percentage points. The CDU is a distant third with 12%, according to a Feb. 20 Hamburg University poll. An Insa survey for Bild newspaper two days earlier showed the SPD well ahead of the Greens with 38%.

Germany’s biggest port city is run by Social Democratic Mayor Peter Tschentscher, who succeeded Olaf Scholz in March 2018 when Scholz moved to Berlin to become Merkel’s finance minister and vice chancellor.

On the campaign, Tschentscher has faced political pressure stemming from media reports that the state government didn’t claim back around 47 million euros ($51 million) in tax refunds from Privatbank M.M.Warburg tied so-called cum-ex trades.

The Greens have been the SPD’s junior coalition partner in Hamburg since 2015, and the party’s local leader Katharina Fegebank, who is deputy mayor, has supported calls for a parliamentary investigation. Tschentscher has denied that there was any political influence.

Earlier polls showed the Greens in a dead heat with the SPD, and a Greens victory would be another blow for the SPD, whose fading support has prompted parts of the party base to call for an end to Merkel’s national coalition.

Another focus will be the fortunes of the far-right AfD, which entered the Hamburg parliament in 2015 with 6% of the vote. Recent polls show little improvement, and one putting the party at 5%, below which the anti-immigrant party would be ejected from the city legislature.

Also in peril are the pro-business Free Democrats, which played a key role in the Thuringia alliance with the AfD on Feb. 5 state premier vote. The rogue maneuver brought a wave of protest against the FDP, which took a hit in polls -- at least one showing they could lose their place in the Hamburg parliament.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Donahue in Berlin at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at, Iain Rogers, Chris Reiter

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