Last week, German voters in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg went to the polls and delivered a kick in the shins to the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel. In the former, the junior coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party [FDP], won no seats at all. In the latter, her ruling Christian Democratic Union [CDU] lost power for the first time in 58 years – to a coalition of the Greens and the Social Democratic Party [SDP]. Winfried Kretschmann will be the first premier of a German länder in the history of the Bundesrepublik, thanks largely to the anti-nuclear wind blown in from Fukushima.
When you think of the German economic miracle, Baden-Württemberg is the place you should be thinking about. The capitol city of Stuttgart is both an efficient place to live and a beautiful one to visit. Optics giant Carl Zeiss AG is there, Europe’s software colossus SAP is based there and it is home to both Daimler and Porsche. Tourism backs up manufacturing in the local economy. The ancient universities of Heidelberg, Freiburg, Karlsruhe and Konstanz lie within its borders. It’s the kind of place you expect a conservative party like the Christian Democrats to win in for decades on end.
Naturally, a government that has been in power for a long time starts to suffer in the polls. Voters simply get tired of the same old faces. Stefan Mappus, the premier of the Baden-Württemberg länder (think U.S. state governor, and you’re not far off the mark), is not Mr. Charisma, but he presided over a growing economy with low unemployment. He is also one of Germany’s biggest nuclear power boosters. That was the kiss of electoral death on last week.
A few years go, Germany had decided to shut down all of its 17 nuclear power plants by 2022. Ms. Merkel announced an extension last year of the plants’ ability to operate for another 12 years on average beyond that date. Her argument was and is that nuclear power is a bridging technology that will cut carbon emissions now while solar, wind and other renewables take over.
Then came the Fukushima meltdown. The Chancellor announced a three-month moratorium on her power station extension. This U-Turn was a critical error, and Manfred Güllner of the Forsa polling institute said, “Without Japan and Merkel’s mistake, Stefan Mappus [the defeated CDU state premier] would have been elected again.”
The coalition’s leadership laid much of the blame for their loss on Fukushima. Chancellor Merkel said, “It is a very painful defeat.” She added, “for me, Japan was a unique event. Japan means we cannot simply stick to business as usual.” Guido Westerwelle, foreign minister and FDP leader, said, “There is nothing to gloss over. We got a black eye. Nuclear energy played a special role in these elections.” Then, he engaged in some self-criticism, “If we liberals had been in better form, this catastrophe in Japan would not have affected us so badly.”
So Germany will have its first Green länder premier, Winfried Kretschmann. He comes from the “realo” wing of the Green Party rather than the “fundi” wing – a realist rather than an ideologue. The Economist says, “he cares as much about fiscal discipline as he does about renewable energy.” A schoolteacher before become a politician, he has taught chemistry, biology and ethics (a mix one is unlikely to find in many other countries).
The Greens used to be the protest-vote party, along with the Left Party (the ex-communists of East Germany and those who lost faith in the “Red-Green” government in 2005). Now, it is the party of government in one of Germany’s most conservative regions. And if Herr Kretschmann is successful, this nuclear election will have permanently changed the electoral landscape of Germany, and as a result, of Europe.
Photo: tillwe, Flickr, CC