Lower Saxony has voted. Last Sunday, around 6 million eligible voters were called upon to cast their ballots. Despite losses, Stephan Weil’s SPD clearly won the election and plans to form a coalition with the Greens. After the four state elections in 2022 in Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein, North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony, we take a look at the composition of the Federal Council. How has the share of votes changed there? And what will the election year 2023 bring for the majorities in the “parliament of the state governments”?  

According to the provisional official final results, the SPD emerged as the clear winner of the Lower Saxony election with 33.4%. Compared to the last state election in 2017, this represents a loss of 3.5%. With only 28.1% of the vote, the CDU suffered significant losses compared to the last state election (33.6%). As expected, the Greens achieved a record result and almost doubled their result from 8.7% to 14.5%. The AfD also almost doubled its result from 6.2% to 10.9%. With 4.7% of the vote, the FDP missed entering the state parliament for the first time since 1998. The Left Party, with only 2.7%, also failed to pass the 5% barrier, as it did in 2017. 

With regard to the formation of a government, the red-green coalition favoured by both the SPD and the Greens is mathematically possible. The required majority – 74 of 146 seats – is clearly met with a combined 81 seats. The continuation of the grand coalition between the SPD and the CDU is also possible with 104 seats, but is currently not being seriously pursued by either party. 

The state election in Lower Saxony was the fourth and last state election this year. Elections had already been held in Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia in the spring. An overarching trend can be seen after the 2022 elections: In Schleswig-Holstein (Daniel Günther, CDU) as well as North Rhine-Westphalia (Hendrik Wüst, CDU) and Lower Saxony (Stephan Weil, SPD), the drawing power of the acting prime ministers and the associated office-holder bonus were decisive factors. In Saarland, Anke Rehlinger (SPD) was “only” acting Minister of Economic Affairs and Deputy Minister President. But she benefited not least from the perceived weakness of the office-holder Tobias Hans (CDU) in the election campaign. It shows once again: strong and well-known personalities mobilise better in the election campaign. Especially in times of crisis like the current one, when trust and stability are more than ever in demand, this seems to be of central importance for voters. 

New balance of votes in the Federal Council: SPD “gets rid” of the CDU 

With regard to the Federal Council (Bundesrat), the election year 2022 also had political effects on a federal level that should not be underestimated: With Saarland (3), Schleswig-Holstein (4), North Rhine-Westphalia (6) and Lower Saxony (6), 19 of the total 69 votes in the Federal Council were up for grabs. For the CDU, the loss of government responsibility in Lower Saxony already means the second loss of votes in the Federal Council this year. Already at the end of March, the CDU had to hand over government responsibility to the SPD in Saarland. As far as the share of votes in the Federal Council is concerned, the election results mean that the proportion of states led by the CDU/CSU or co-governed by the CDU/CSU continues to shrink: Of the former ten co-governed federal states before the 2022 state elections, only eight remain. The Union’s votes in the Federal Council decrease accordingly from 48 to 39. 

The SPD has not gained any votes in the Federal Council in 2022, but has managed to “get rid” of the CDU in both Saarland and Lower Saxony. The last two remaining grand coalitions at state level are thus history. The SPD continues to be involved in government in eleven federal states and now has a say in a total of 42 Federal Council votes. 

The Greens were able to enormously increase their influence in the Federal Council in 2022. While the party was involved in ten governments before April 2022, it will soon be governing in twelve out of 16 federal states. As a result, their role in the Federal Council is becoming increasingly central: from 41 votes, the Greens have improved to 49 votes after four state elections this year. This means that they do not participate in only 20 of the 69 votes to be assigned in the Federal Council. 

Distribution of seats in the Federal Council before and after the 2022 state elections 

For the traffic light coalition (Ampelkoalition), the state elections in Saarland and Lower Saxony are particularly encouraging, as this makes it easier to “govern through” with the help of the federal states in the Federal Council. The more federal states that are firmly in the hands of the SPD or the traffic light coalition, the less coordination is required in cooperation with the federal states. Eight federal states (Berlin, Brandenburg, Bremen, Hamburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Lower Saxony, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland) with a total of 30 votes will in future belong to the so-called A-states (=SPD-led), which in case of doubt will not oppose the traffic light government. In six of these A-states the Greens will govern in future. Only in Brandenburg CDU still has an influence on the voting behaviour of an A-state. Thuringia is not formally classified as an A-state, since the government is led by the Left Party. But with the SPD and the Greens, two parties that govern in the federal government are also involved here. This means that the traffic lights can potentially count on up to 34 Federal Council votes more or less firmly in the case of laws requiring approval. 

Furthermore, the role of Baden-Wurttemberg should not be underestimated, which, as the only Green-led federal state, can make the difference in case of doubt. Although the SPD still does not have an absolute majority in the Federal Council, it is much closer to one in 2022. In future, only six federal states with a total of 29 votes will belong to the so-called B-states (=CDU/CSU-led): Bavaria, Hesse, North Rhine-Westphalia, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Schleswig-Holstein. In order to be complete, however, the role of Baden-Württemberg should also be mentioned here, which with its votes could in principle also provide the B-states with the necessary absolute majority of 35 votes.  

Further state elections are then due in 2023. Elections will be held in two B states, Bavaria and Hesse, among others. At present, it cannot be assumed that there will be such a fundamental change in the majorities in these states that the CDU/CSU will lose its lead over the SPD. However, the fast-moving nature of the political business can cause majorities that were thought to be secure to suddenly falter. In Bavaria, for example, the Greens could be considered as the only coalition partner for the CSU if an alliance with the Freie Wähler party is no longer sufficient. This would mean that the Greens, as part of the traffic light government, would be directly involved in another heavyweight in the Federal Council. 

In the same way, however, the SPD’s share of the vote in the Federal Council may change next year. The red-red-green coalition is currently not expected to be voted out of office in the Bremen parliamentary elections on 14 May 2023. However, a fourth election in 2023, which has not yet been finally decided, could add to this and at least ensure that the SPD has to hand over an A-Land to the Greens: Berlin. There, the final decision of the state constitutional court on a new election is still pending, but there is a high probability that citizens in the capital will have to go to the polls once again after the election chaos last year. In the current polls for the House of Representatives, the Greens are clearly ahead of the SPD in some cases, which is why Franziska Giffey must fear for her job as Governing Mayor of Berlin in the event of new elections. Things therefore remain exciting – not only at the level of the state parliaments, but also with regard to the majority in the Federal Council.