European, Bremen Elections: Votes in Germany Could Signal the Demise of Europe's Establishment Parties

Local elections in the small German city of Bremen, together with European parliamentary elections, could be a bellwether of the fate of establishment political parties at a time when upstart political groups are radically shifting the political landscape across Europe. But while other countries are questioning their commitment to continental unity, Germany's shifting political landscape is not expected to prompt an abdication of the country's place at the center of the European Union.

On Sunday, voters in Bremen will head to the voting booths, and polls show that Germany's Social Democrats (SPD), which has maintained control of the city since the end of World War II, could lose their position of prominence. Some analysts see this as an indication that establishment political parties in Germany and the European Union are struggling.

"Bremen is a small federal state in Germany, but the SPD has had an oversized profile in the city because it's been in charge of the city for over seventy years in post–World War II Germany. And for the first time they may not be able to hold the [city]," Sudha David-Wilp, deputy director of the German Marshall Fund's Berlin office, told Newsweek.

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A young woman on a bicycle rides past election campaign billboards for European parliamentary elections, on May 21, 2019 in Berlin, Germany. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

"So that's why people are thinking that even though Bremen is not necessarily a bellwether in German politics.…it is definitely a harbinger for the fate of the SPD as an established party in Germany," David-Wilp continued. "Establishment parties in Europe are being upstaged by political forces on the fringes."

For years, just three parties in Germany dominated the Bundestag: Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the Free Democrats (FDP). In the 1980s the Greens arrived on the political scene, making inroads. But the arrival of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Deutschland (AFD), which first entered parliament in 2017, upset the balance of power further and shifted the political landscape to the right.

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A balloon inscribed with the words: "We love Europe" floats during a campaign meeting of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) for the upcoming European parliamentary elections in Berlin on May 6, 2019. John MacDougall/Getty Images

Jorn Fleck, a Germany analyst and former chief of staff for a British member of the European Parliament, said the SPD allowed itself to be outshined by its coalition partner, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Consequently they are losing popularity to newer parties with more fresh and exciting platforms.

"I think it's a continuation of a trend we've seen for a number of years now. It's that odd space that the SPD sits in, partly due to its own fault in terms of programmatic renewal or the lack thereof," Fleck told Newsweek. "You're losing another election to the Greens, who are these up-and-comers; they're on a high, they're riding a wave of electoral successes, they're not in this uneasy marriage with Chancellor Merkel in Berlin where you have to make compromises."

Now these newer political parties, including the far-right AFD, are expected to have a relatively strong showing in the European parliamentary election.

For the first time in the 40 years since Europeans began voting for EU lawmakers, populist euroskeptics could become a prominent force in the European parliament. Euroskeptic parties are projected to win up to 35 percent of the vote around the continent.

Still, this increase in representation isn't expected to sound the death knell of the EU.

Polling suggests that support for the EU is higher than ever in the wake of Brexit, the British referendum to leave the EU. A Pew Survey from 2018 showed that around 62 percent of respondents had a favorable view of the EU two years after Brits first voted to leave.

Brexit negotiations, meanwhile, have been such an unmitigated disaster for the U.K.'s Conservative Party that even politicians who advocated leaving the EU have backed away from that position after witnessing the struggle in the U.K. British Prime Minister Theresa May resigned on Friday and broke into tears after failing to deliver a Brexit plan.

And although the AFD is quickly catching up with SPD, Merkel's CDU and the Greens are still in the lead. Germany has 96 seats in the 751-seat European Parliament, and the AFD is projected to win just 12. By comparison, the CDU will likely get around 28 seats and the SPD 15, according to most polls, with the Greens hovering somewhere in the middle with around 18 seats.

Ultimately, Germany's political fragmentation, which mimics trends in other European countries, is not expected to alter the country's strong pro-European stance. AFD remains the only euroskeptic party in the country, and the Greens, the CDU, and the Free Democrats continue to outperform the far right even as the SPD loses votes.

"You have one of the, if not the, most pro-European electorates in Europe. So you have a really strong mainstream of pro-European parties," said Flek. "Any of the voter shifts and flows largely will remain within the pro-European spectrum, which is quite unique in Europe because you have the rise of populist, nationalist, euroskeptics everywhere."

European, Bremen Elections: Votes in Germany Could Signal the Demise of Europe's Establishment Parties | World