Merkel's party loses ground as SPD wins back Hamburg


GERMANY’S SUPER-ELECTION year got off to a nightmare start for chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday after a historic collapse in support for her Christian Democrats (CDU) in Hamburg.

The first of seven state elections this year delivered a dream result for the Social Democrats (SPD): after a decade in opposition the party took almost half the vote in Germany’s second city.

Exit polls put the SPD on course for an absolute majority last night with 49.5 per cent of the vote, its best result since 1998, likely to give it 65 seats in the 121-seat parliament.

The CDU’s support halved to just 20 per cent, the worst state election result in its postwar history. Though fought almost exclusively on local issues, the Hamburg result puts pressure on the CDU nationally and weakens still further Dr Merkel’s minority position in the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat.

“Voters can be won with a pragmatic kind of politics and it is possible to combine economic sense with social justice,” said Olaf Scholz, Hamburg’s next mayor, after a programme that combined pro-business investment plans with the promise of free kindergarten places for all children.

“These are not contradictory but represent a long tradition within the SPD, something we will stand for in the future.”

Detailed exit polls showed the party ran a campaign that appealed as much to Hamburg’s comfortable middle classes as its working class population.

Over three-quarters of voters polled by ARD public television placed the city-state’s SPD as “centrist, not left-wing”. At the same time, two-thirds of voters said the party under Mr Scholz “took seriously the little man’s problems”.

The party’s economic policies and social justice profile were equally important to voters – 36 per cent and 35 per cent respectively.

By tapping into the Hamburg SPD’s centrist tradition, Mr Scholz has sent a strong signal to the party’s federal headquarters in Berlin.

Since it crashed out of power in 2009, SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel has flirted with a left-wing programme and distanced the party from the reform years of Gerhard Schröder. Yesterday, Mr Gabriel promised further state wins this year by “taking seriously the concerns of ordinary people”.

The vote ends prematurely the CDU-Green coalition experiment. The Greens return to the opposition benches up 1.4 per cent to 11.5 per cent; after two failed attempts, the pro-business Free Democrats returned to Hamburg’s Bürgerschaft yesterday with 6.5 per cent.