1998 was a turning point in German politics. The CDU suffered a severe defeat in the federal elections and was voted out of office after 16 years. Chancellor Helmut Kohl was retired by the electorate – he had wanted to do it again and failed. His successor was Gerhard Schröder, he led the SPD’s election campaign from his position as the strong Prime Minister of Lower Saxony and made the SPD the strongest party in the Bundestag for the first time since 1972.
With the Greens, led by Joschka Fischer, soon to be Foreign Minister, he formed a progressive coalition that set about turning Germany inside out. “Neue Mitte” was the slogan. Everything looked like the beginning of a new era. There was glamor and glory in the new coalition. Then came 1999.
2021 was also a turning point in German politics. Not as radical as in 1998, but still. A progressive center-left coalition governs again – slogan “dare more progress”. The Greens and FDP are back in government after a long or longer break. And the SPD is again the strongest party in the Bundestag after 20 years, albeit just barely – and above all at a significantly lower level than under Schröder. But the collapse of the Union last year was the actually dramatic political event of 2021. And now we have 2022.
And what happened in 1999 could happen: that the Union, which had been voted out with a crash, will find its footing again faster than (also by itself) thought. 23 years ago, the exuberance of the first months of the red-green government was quickly followed by disillusionment. On February 7, 1999, the Union won the state elections in Hesse. The winner of the election, Roland Koch, who appeared emphatically conservative, formed a coalition with the FDP. The discontinued black and yellow model was back. The Union suddenly had a new star who presented himself as “Kohl’s grandson”, but seemed fresher than the party leader at the time, Wolfgang Schäuble.
Shortly thereafter, in March, Oskar Lafontaine resigned as federal finance minister. Red-green was struck. In September, the fiasco (from a coalition perspective) of the triple triumph of the CDU in Saarland, Saxony and Thuringia followed, which resulted in three sole governments. In Brandenburg, the previously clearly dominant SPD collapsed and had to form a coalition with the CDU. In October, the CDU in Berlin was able to gain ground at least slightly and continue the grand coalition under Eberhard Diepgen.
It was the successes of 1999 with which the CDU laid the foundation for its resurgence and for taking over the federal government in 2005. Is something similar happening this year? Does the traffic light stumble? Is the Union coming back massively? In Saarland in March it didn’t look like it at all. The CDU collapsed, the SPD grew massively – no comparison to 1999. Last weekend, however, it looked the other way around: triumph of the CDU in Schleswig-Holstein, the Social Democrats repulsed. For the CDU federal leadership around Friedrich Merz, the first real sign of hope after the long quarrels.
And now the state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia are due on Sunday. This will be followed in October by Lower Saxony. But the result in Düsseldorf in particular will show whether 2022 will be a 1999 moment. The last surveys did not indicate this – red-green can therefore replace black-yellow. If it’s not quite enough, SPD top candidate Thomas Kutschaty could also form a traffic light coalition. It would be a backing for the coalition in the federal government.
But in Schleswig-Holstein the opinion polls were not quite as good recently. The CDU was clearly underestimated. If this is repeated in NRW, it can still be tight. Prime Minister Hendrik Wüst is less popular and does not determine state politics as much as his Kiel colleague Daniel Günther. But the wind from the north, which the CDU is now relying on in the days before the election, can help him. And Friedrich Merz, after all, a politician in North Rhine-Westphalia.
If the CDU were ahead, it would not be possible to form a government against them, if black and yellow were even confirmed, the start of the traffic lights in the federal government would be disrupted. The SPD, Greens and FDP each have their own reasons for taking care of a realignment in Berlin politics. But the CDU could say: Look at 1999. We were down. But we’ll be back. Like back then. The elections in Lower Saxony on October 9th would then have an even clearer federal political focus.
It would then be a question, especially from the point of view of the Social Democrats (they lead the state government with Prime Minister Stephan Weil), whether the 2022 election year will be in favor of the CDU or whether a draw can at least be achieved. But the reverse is also true: If the SPD were successful in the Rhine and Ruhr (whether with the Greens alone or at a traffic light), the CDU would have to do everything in its power to take over Lower Saxony. It will be exciting.