Anything can happen in Lower Saxony's regional election

Three weeks after the federal election in Germany, the state of Lower Saxony is holding an election for a new regional parliament. The poll could reveal voter sentiment as coalition talks are held in Berlin.

The regional elections in the German state of Lower Saxony on Sunday were originally slated for January 2018. But a member of parliament for the Green Party, Elke Twesten, left her party in August to join the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). By doing so, she put an end to the slim majority held by the governing coalition comprised of the Greens and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), making the election necessary.

Many believe this state poll will give clues about how voters view the difficult process of forming a federal government in Berlin.

Merkel warns against left-wing coalition

The two largest parties, CDU and SPD, lost many votes in the national election in September.  

Deutschland CDU und FDP vor möglicher Mehrheit in Niedersachsen

Twesten triggered the election with her defection

Chancellor Angela Merkel, leader of the CDU, has been heavily involved in the short election campaign in the state, even making several appearances in local town squares to address voters in person. She has warned above all against having a ruling coalition made up of the left-wing parties SPD, Greens and the Left party in the Hanover parliament — the SPD has not ruled out the possibility of such an alliance.

Politics | 21.08.2017

"I firmly believe that this alliance would not be good for Lower Saxony," the chancellor told NDR, the public broadcaster for the northern regions of Germany. Merkel is well aware that if current SPD state premier Stephan Weil works toward such a coalition, her own coalition negotiations with the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) will become even more difficult than they already are.

Because the SPD has decided to go into opposition at the national level after recording its worst election outcome since WWII, it has nothing to do with those negotiations in Berlin. As a result, the party in Lower Saxony now feels free in its moves.

But everything is different in Lower Saxony anyway. As the election date approached, the SPD saw a surge in support; some polls even have the party overtaking the CDU, although the conservatives and the social democrats are expected to take 32 and 34 percent of the vote. But this balance does not really reflect a trend at the national level; rather, it can be attributed to Stephan Weil's popularity.

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Colorful shorthand for German coalitions

Coalitions are common under Germany's proportional representation system. To describe complex ballot outcomes, political pundits use colorful symbolism, often alluding to the flags of other nations. Coalition short-hand includes 'Jamaica,' 'Kenya,' and 'traffic light' coalitions.

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'Jamaica' option - black, yellow and green

The three-way deal between the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats, whose color is yellow will not be happening at national level after the FDP called off talks. The northern state of Schleswig-Holstein currently has a "Jamaica" government, as CDU premier Daniel Günther governs with the FDP and the Greens.

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Black-red coalition

Conservative black combined with transformative red is the color code when the Christian Democrats govern in a grand coalition with the Social Democrats. Yellow on these billboards alludes to Germany's tricolor flag of black, red and gold. Black tops the flag, signifying Germany's responsibility for the Holocaust.

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'Pizza Connection' in Bonn, before parliament moved to Berlin

When Bonn was still Germany's capital, individual conservatives and Greens met from 1995 in its suburban Italian Sassella restaurant. Since then, the 'Pizza Connection' has become code for speculation over further links. At regional level, in Hesse's Wiesbaden assembly, Merkel's CDU and Greens have governed together since 2014. Baden-Württemburg's Greens-CDU coalition has governed since 2016.

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Another untried combination: Black, red, green, symbolized by Kenya's flag

So far, a 'Kenyan' coalition has only emerged once at regional state level - last year in Saxony-Anhalt, when the SPD's vote collapsed, and the AfD took a quarter of the votes. Premier Reiner Haseloff of Merkel's conservatives forged a coalition comprising his conservative CDU, the battered SPD and the region's Greens.

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'Traffic light' coalition

The market-oriented liberal FDP, whose color is yellow, has in the past generally ruled out federal coalitions sandwiched between the Social Democrats, whose color is red, and the Greens. A current example is Rhineland Palatinate's three-way regional state coalition based in Mainz and headed by Social Democrat Malu Dreyer.

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Center-left combinations in three eastern states

Red-red-green coalitions exist in two German regions: since last September in Berlin city state and since 2014 in Thuringia. It's Erfurt-based government is headed by Left party premier Bodo Ramelow, seen signing (third from left). Berlin's three-way mix is headed by Social Democrat Michael Müller. Brandenburg has a two-way coalition, comprising the Social Democrats and the Left party.

Popular premier

For the Social Democrat premier enjoys considerable support in the state. Although his main challenger, the CDU's Bernd Althusmann, who is considered to be rather on the bland side, was leading the polls for a long time, the gap between the two of them has been constantly closing.

In a TV interview with NDR, federal SPD party leader Martin Schulz explained: "The party is motivated by the bad result we achieved in the Bundestag election." In an interview with the newspaper Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung, Schulz, who was also his party's candidate for chancellor in the national poll, briefly touched on Merkel's aversion to a left-wing coalition, saying: "We have to wait for the election result. Stephan Weil will decide what needs to be done. I am not giving any advice."

In other words, a left-wing coalition is an option. But the Left party must first get over the threshold needed to enter parliament — something that is still by no means certain, with polls showing the party only hovering around that 5-percent benchmark.

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Other coalition possibilities

Cuxhaven Martin Schulz unterstützt SPD-Wahlkampf in Niedersachsen

Schulz (left) hopes Weil (center) will have more success

Different combinations of parties are possible, but one thing is certain: The previous coalition of SPD and Greens is barely likely to be able to continue to govern. Theoretically, Lower Saxony's CDU could also work together with the FDP and the Greens, as it intends to do in Berlin with Merkel. But the Green Party would in all probability not take part in a regional alliance with the conservatives, especially as the state branch of the environmentalist party is seen as more left-wing than its national counterpart.

It will be interesting to see how the two small parties currently striving for power in Berlin fare at the state level. The polls have both the FDP and the Greens at a stable 10 percent in Lower Saxony. So far, the reports from Berlin about the possible CDU/CSU-Green-FDP alliance do not appear to be having a negative impact on the Greens and FDP in the state.

Coming to terms with the AfD

Although the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) won more than 12 percent of the vote in the national election, polls had them at just 7 percent in Lower Saxony ahead of the vote on Sunday. But if the party does score another election success, it will surely draw massive media attention again.

Read more: AfD: What you need to know about Germany's far-right party

Martin Schulz wants his party to engage with the phenomenon of the AfD in a different, more open manner than previously — and not only in Lower Saxony. Schulz told the Heidelberg-based newspaper Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung that many AfD voters did not feel they were "respected" and thought that "their personal achievements were not being appreciated." Looking back at the Bundestag election, he added, "We must convince the majority of them that we have heard their wake-up call."

He knows, however, that the other parties cannot win over staunch extremists within the AfD. "But they are a minority among AfD voters," Schulz said.

Read more: New study shows AfD capitalized on Germany's divided electorate

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Swamp Soccer

There has been precious little mud-slinging in the election campaign so far, in stark contrast to the Swamp Soccer match in August during the East Friesian "Wältmeisterschaften" (Wadden Cup). The Wadden Sea UNESCO World Heritage site dominates large areas in the northern part of Lower Saxony.

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Germany's food basket

Agriculture, especially pork and beef production, is a key industry in Lower Saxony. The regional government claims that almost half of all potatoes in Germany are produced in the state. Each year, the country fair in the town of Verden crowns the most beautiful dairy cow from around 200 participants.

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The Volkswagen behemoth

The political influence on what was until recently the world's largest carmaker, is unique. The state of Lower Saxony is one of the biggest shareholders in Volkswagen and holds 20 percent of voting rights. The state government has a say in the direction and running of the auto giant and has two representatives on the supervisory board.

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Two hats on

As state premier of Lower Saxony, Stephan Weil is also a member of VW's supervisory board. Qua office, so to speak. As is his finance minister and fellow Social Democrat, Olaf Lies. Weil sees the tradition of state lawmakers being on the board of having "proved itself for decades."

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The best of friends

The intertwining of politics and VW business has long been a cause for hefty criticizm, however. Gerhard Schröder's (seen here awarding the state medal to VW chairman Ferdinand Piech) tenure as state premier between 1990 and 1998 came in for particular scrutiny. When he moved to the national stage, Schröder earned the moniker the "auto chancellor."

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The challenger

State Premier Stephan Weil's main rival is Bernd Althusmann, the leader of the regional party of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats. Should he emerge victorious, Althusmann plans to bring in external expertise to VW. He envisions replacing one of the government's seats on the advisory board with an auditor.

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Life support

It is impossible to overstate the economic significance of VW for Lower Saxony. It means jobs. Lots of them. Around 120,000 of VW's worldwide 600,000 employees are based in the state. As well as the Wolfsburg headquarters, there are also production facilities in five further cities in Lower Saxony, including the port of Emden (pictured here), where cars are immediately loaded onto waiting ships.

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Wind in its sails

Lower Saxony is a leading pioneer of wind energy. With 203 new turbines in the first half of 2017, the state accounts for a quarter of all new facilities nationwide.

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Musical chairs in Hanover

The pack in the Hanover state parliament will be reshuffled on October 15. At least 135 lawmakers make up the assembly, but that figure rose to 137 after the last election due to overhang seats. This election was brought forward after a Green party MP switched allegiances to the Christian Democrats, meaning the ruling coalition of Social Democrats and Greens lost their one-seat majority.