Here’s Where Germany’s Election Will Be Won Or Lost

  • Pinneberg outside Hamburg has always backed winning party
  • Populist insurgents gaining support in ex-industrial heartland

German Election Heats Up Amid Tepid Campaigning

Across Germany, candidates and activists are stepping up their campaigning for the Sept. 24 election. It’s not just a single national contest: Germans cast two votes, the first for one of 299 directly elected members of the Bundestag from their local district, and the second for a party.

So where can Chancellor Angela Merkel be sure of the most support? Where might the populist Alternative for Germany hope to make inroads? And which are the tightest races? Here are some of the places to watch.

The Bellwether

Pinneberg, on a commuter rail line on the northwest outskirts of Hamburg, isn’t a particularly remarkable place, but it has a remarkable electoral record: Ever since Germany’s current voting system was first used in 1953, the district has chosen a member of the Bundestag from the party that’s gone on to lead the new government. That’s not to say it’s Germany in miniature: The Social Democrats regularly do better than their national performance. But the Christian Democrats’ result in Pinneberg tends to mirror pretty closely how they poll across Germany as a whole; in two of the past four elections, there’s only been a 0.1 percentage-point difference between the CDU candidate’s score in the district and the national share for Merkel’s bloc.

And in the East...

Districts in the former East Germany have only taken part in elections to the Bundestag since 1990, but there is one that’s backed the winning side every time since unification: Leipzig-Land. Curving round the south and east of Leipzig, it includes towns like Grimma, Markkleeberg and Colditz that are growing in population, unlike many places in the east. Whether Leipzig-Land remains a reliable bellwether is open to question, though: Social Democrat support fell to about 16 percent in the past two elections, with the CDU’s Katharina Landgraf taking more than half of the vote.

Conservative Heartland

There’s no doubting where Merkel’s CDU polls most strongly: Cloppenburg-Vechta, amid the featureless agricultural landscape of northwest Germany. In 2013, the Christian Democrat in the district took 66.3 percent of the first vote, the highest score anywhere in the country, 5.6 points more than in the next highest-scoring CDU candidate. In 2009, it was 62.3 percent, 7.7 points better than anywhere else.

The Christian Democrats have won here ever since the Federal Republic was founded in 1949. It’s a conservative, strongly Catholic area that’s seen an influx of ethnic-German immigrants from the former Soviet Union -- demographics reflected in an unusually high birth rate.

The Alternative Politics

Berlin is different. And nowhere is Berlin more different than in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg-Prenzlauer Berg Ost, covering some of the most “in” districts in both east and west of the once divided capital. Hans-Christian Stroebele has held the seat for the Greens since 2002, the only member of the party ever to be directly elected to the Bundestag, rather than from the party list.

Conversely, and by no means coincidentally, this was the district where the CDU did worst in both 2009 and 2013. Last time round, the CDU score of 13.7 percent was 8.9 points lower than anywhere else -- and in fact the six worst results for Merkel’s party were all in Berlin. What will happen this time, now Stroebele has decided not to run again?

Berlin, by the way, also provided the anti-capitalist Left party with its best results last time: It scored around 40 percent of the vote in Treptow-Koepenick -- the seat of the party’s former parliamentary leader, Gregor Gysi -- as well as in Lichtenberg and Marzahn-Hellersdorf. In total, Left candidates triumphed in four districts, all in east Berlin.

The Populist Challenge

Of course, the Greens and the Left aren’t the only alternative to the major-party fare on offer in Germany. Having contested the 2013 vote essentially as a movement opposed to the euro, the Alternative for Germany has morphed into the sort of right-wing populist, anti-migrant party that’s enjoyed electoral success in neighboring countries.

An indication of where the AfD is likely to do well in September comes from May’s regional vote in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia. It achieved its best result in Gelsenkirchen, scoring more than 15 percent in one constituency. The city’s now perhaps best known internationally as the home of the Schalke soccer club. But what was once a coalmining and heavy-industry hub that helped fuel the postwar West German economic miracle has an unemployment rate more than twice the national average, and more than one in six of the population is non-German. This may be bad news for the Social Democrats: Gelsenkirchen saw their best result in the 2013 Bundestag election, with 50.5 percent.

One-Party State

Merkel’s Christian Democrats don’t contest elections in Bavaria, leaving the field to their allies in the Christian Social Union. The CSU won every district in Bavaria in 2013, as it did four years earlier. But while CSU support topped 60 percent in nine of the state’s 45 constituencies, the big cities were a little more rebellious, and the party even dipped below the 40 percent mark in Nuremberg North. The Social Democrats failed to take more than a third of the vote in any Bavarian district last time, even though in local politics Munich and Nuremberg almost invariably elect SPD mayors. Munich North was the last Bavarian constituency to send a Social Democrat to the Bundestag, back in 2005.

As Close as It Gets

If the CDU is to take any district from the SPD, the most obvious domino to fall is Maerkischer Kreis II in Westphalia, including the traditional metalworking town of Iserlohn. The Social Democrats won by only 53 votes out of 143,500 in 2013, but the CDU hasn’t won here for 34 years. An hour’s drive to the west, the boot is on the other foot in Essen, at the heart of the old Ruhr industrial belt. The CDU had a lead over the SPD of just 93 votes out of 149,500 in Essen III, covering parts of the south and the west of the city. It was the only seat in Germany’s biggest state the CDU managed to gain last time round.

— With assistance by Adrian Leung

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