Even if Hamburg in many ways is a bourgeois city, it has never been CDU country. That the party managed to hold power in Hamburg since 2001 had as much to do with protest politics (the now defunct Partei Rechtsstaatlicher Offensive) and the ability of Ole von Beust to navigate the upheavals of the early 2000s as with more fundamental changes in the political mood in the city-state. Still, the CDU miraculously managed to win a majority in the 2004 election and after the 2008 election formed a surprising coalition with the Green Party. Von Beust was nothing if not versatile. He was also helped by the fact that the Hamburg SPD was a mess during much of the last decade.
The SPD victory at Sunday’s early election was a massive one. CDU lost half of its share of the vote while SPD almost won 50% of the vote. Thanks to the 5% threshold, SPD will be able to form a one-party government in the new Bürgerschaft. A good reason to party.
At the same time, SPD was also able to benefit from a number of mistakes made by von Beust and his successor Christoph Ahlhaus. The CDU-GAL coalition made sense as von Beust appealed to culturally liberal Hamburgers, but support did not go so far as to cover a reform of Hamburg’s school system. Germany basically is a society organised along class lines and the bourgeoisie does not like the idea of its children attending the same schools (and school system) as working-class children. The school reform – which was very modest in Scandinavian eyes – suffered a clear defeat at a referendum last year.
The choice of Christoph Ahlhaus as von Beust’s successor made some sense as CDU was trying to rebuild its conservative credentials following the schools debacle – Ahlhaus is everything von Beust wasn’t. Unfortunately, this also meant that he wasn’t from Hamburg or even Northern Germany. It might have worked, had he been from Lübeck, Bremen or even Rostock. Similarly, even if the Hamburger bourgeoisie may be conservative, it is not Conservative. The best SPD leaders have realised this and presented themselves as realist Social Democrats – even if Helmut Schmidt never served as Erster Bürgermeister, he always fitted the bill perfectly. Olaf Scholz may not be the next Helmut Schmidt but his Schröderite credentials and experience as Labour and Social Affairs Minister during the later part of the 2005-2009 Grand Coalition haven’t exactly hurt him.