On the “hipster election” in Schleswig-Holstein

ON SUNDAY France goes to the polls. Emmanuel Macron will win and the far-right Front National will do better than in any presidential election to date. So all eyes will be on Paris. Yet far to the north another, less predictable and vastly less reported-on vote will be taking place. One that Pepijn Bergsen, my colleague at the Economist Intelligence Unit, calls the “hipster” election of this weekend. It matters, but few people are paying attention to it.

Unlike the French election the result in Schleswig-Holstein hangs in the balance. No-one knows whether the incumbent Torsten Albig (of the centre-left SPD) or his challenger Daniel Günther (of the centre-right CDU) will be prime minister of the state for the next four years.

Schleswig-Holstein has been a nest of political turmoil for decades. In 1987 its CDU prime minister was accused of authorising black-ops against his SPD opponent, resigned in disgrace and was subsequently found dead in a bathtub in Geneva in mysterious circumstances. In 2005 the SPD lost control of the state due to a phantom MP. The party and its coalition partners had a majority of one in the Kiel parliament but one never-identified representative kept voting against his or her own party. The coalition collapsed and the CDU took over. Dark rumours still swirl about the identity and motive of the culprit.

Politics in Schleswig-Holstein today is less dramatic. The small, craggily coastal state at the northern tip of Germany is now calm, stable and, according to one study, happier than any other in the country. Yet once more it is making waves. For a long time it has seemed likely that its governing coalition of SPD, Greens and the South-Schleswig Voters’ Association (the SSW, a tiny party representing the state’s Danish minority) would be reelected. Yet with just 24 hours to go until the election, the last four polls have all put the the CDU ahead of the SPD and implied that the government, known as the “Gambia coalition” for its red-green-blue colours, may lose its majority. All three parties have lost support in the past months, though thanks to the Bonn-Copenhagen Agreement of 1955 the SSW is exempt from the 5% hurdle other German parties must clear to secure representation. 

Why? There are some local factors at play. Voters complain about run-down schools, slow improvements to the autobahn network and patchy rural internet connections. At 6.1%, unemployment in the state is slightly above the national average. Though little known, the angular Mr Günther has run a glitzy campaign—all well-lit, American-style town hall events and slick backdrops—and outperformed Mr Albig in television debates.

Yet the vote is hardly devoid of national significance. Mr Schulz has campaigned extensively here, recalling how he met his wife in Husum, a pretty shipping town near the Danish border. Mrs Merkel and her lieutenants have also charged up to the state, materialising in quiet fishing villages and old Hanseatic towns for weeks now.

Schleswig-Holstein is a sparkly prize. Mr Schulz needs his party to win there to prove that the SPD’s poll surge since January, which has fallen back in recent weeks, is not yet dead. During her 12 years as chancellor Mrs Merkel has presided over an embarrassingly long list of CDU disappointments at state elections. So she would draw reassurance and validation from a victory by Mr Günther and the emergence in Schleswig-Holstein of a “Jamaica coalition” (of the CDU, Greens and the liberal FDP).

The election’s timing makes it especially significant. It comes one week before North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, goes to the polls in another close vote (see my article in this week’s print edition). And apart from that it is the last popular vote before the general election on September 24th. Should the SPD lose power at this sensitive stage, some in the party may start to panic. Mr Schulz may have tough questions to answer. He may even face a crisis. Meanwhile Mrs Merkel, whose preeminence in the CDU wobbled at the peak of Mr Schulz’s honeymoon a couple of months ago, will be newly secure. The chancellor will go into the general election reinforced and with excellent prospects of keeping her job. So pay attention to what happens between Germany’s North Sea and Baltic Sea coasts on Sunday. Any earthquake there will ripple out, in all directions. 

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