As former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once put it, governing is child's play compared to life in opposition. A quote that is currently quite appropriate in relation to the political situation in the city-state of Hamburg. Red-Green governs, equipped with a comfortable two-thirds majority, through the pandemic, energy crisis and mobility turnaround - while the opposition is honestly but in vain striving for its own points. And as if the initial situation wasn't challenging enough, the CDU, Left and FDP are tearing themselves apart internally instead of acting as opponents of the Senate.
"That's why the CDU, Left and FDP are only able to a limited extent to set debate points geared towards state politics," says political scientist Bendix Hügelmann in an interview with WELT AM SONNTAG. The issues with which the opposition could position itself vis-à-vis the government and offer counter-concepts to the electorate are out in the open.
As a result, the situation of the CDU, Left and FDP on the way to the 2025 state elections is by no means hopeless, especially since Hügelmann - who advises politicians, parties and companies on questions of strategic communication based in Hamburg - recognizes a prominent politician in the ranks of the opposition.
At the last poll in February 2020, 39.2 percent of voters in Hamburg opted for the SPD of Mayor Peter Tschentscher and 24.2 percent for his coalition partner, the Greens. The CDU (11.2 percent), the Left Party (9.1 percent) and the AfD (5.3 percent) followed far behind. The latter are currently appearing as one – in contrast to the FDP, which failed at the five percent hurdle in 2020, has since only been represented by two non-attached MPs in the state parliament and is struggling for a fresh start.
So it is the Free Democrats who are leading the procession of internal party brawlers. What began in the spring as criticism by four young liberals (JuLis) of the Corona and Ukraine policy of state chairman Michael Kruse escalated into a personally hurtful exchange of blows by the autumn. The offspring accused Kruse of “substantive conformity” and “political cleansing”, the party accused the JuLis of “language related to the Nazis”. In the meantime, the FDP has sought exclusion proceedings against the four rebels by filing a lawsuit before the party's arbitration board - with an open outcome.
"The ongoing dispute is an absolute debacle for the FDP because it makes the entire caste of officials and those responsible appear as a dubious bunch," says Hügelmann. Nobody cares anymore what the trigger was and who is to blame. This "just bizarre argument" harms the party in the long term. According to Hügelmann, this is particularly tragic against the background "because in the Hanseatic city there is a clientele for the FDP to sit in the parliamentary group in the strength of the parliamentary group". His advice: "The party should quickly stop the public skirmishes in order to deal with people's problems."
Country chief Kruse does not believe that the Elbe Liberals could get the receipt for their internal feud in 2025. After all, the FDP has "more members than it has had in 40 years". He registers "that people are concerned about other things than internal party discussions". Citizens' problems revolved around rising living costs, a secure energy supply and the global tensions triggered by the Russian war of aggression. The FDP takes this seriously and does “everything to work out good solutions at all levels”.
According to Hügelmann, it is "legitimate and the essence of political competition" for members of a party to argue. It should not come to a sustained form of public debate. "There are only losers," says the 34-year-old, who did his doctorate at the University of Hamburg on the influence of social media on voting decisions and individual behavior.
The scientist, who is currently researching the use and mobilization of Instagram in political communication, continues to analyze: "Parties are elected if they credibly tell what they improve for society. But a party has little of that if it runs opposition within its own ranks or wants to throw out party friends.”
The rifts have always been even deeper in the Left Party. The infighting and the disastrous results of the Bundestag elections were followed by incessant debates in Hamburg, and ex-Chairman Keyvan Taheri denounced racism in his own ranks without providing concrete evidence. And so the picture that the left paints of itself is as multifaceted as the number of its tendencies. The open cacophony of the voices always gets in the way of a desire for unity that is also expressed.
"There are arguments in every party and that's part of it, but no one needs a party that only deals with itself in endless quarrels," says Sabine Ritter, who recently took over the presidency of the Left Party in Hamburg with Thomas Iwan. She describes the ongoing dispute at the federal level as "really toxic". And: "If there is a constant disruptive fire from federal politics - and here specifically: from the parliamentary group - we as a state association have little chance of convincing the people of Hamburg." At least their state association has pulled itself together after "difficult months" and the priorities cleared up, Ritter believes.
From the point of view of political scientist Hügelmann, the Elbe metropolis has “a great extra-parliamentary, left-interventionist past, keyword Hafenstraße”. The political left is traditionally strongly represented and deeply rooted in the city through various movements, from the Rote Flora to the university campus. But even for the current leadership of the Left Party, the difficulty remains "to unite the different currents and to position them as an interface between extra-parliamentary politics and parliament," says Hügelmann.
Despite reduced mandates, the largest opposition party in Hamburg is still the CDU, which has been re-formed with state chairman Christoph Ploß and parliamentary group leader Dennis Thering. Hügelmann does not yet see any programmatic advances with which the CDU has left a sophisticated alternative policy to the SPD among the population.
As expected, Thering sees things differently and refers to more than 2,860 inquiries that his parliamentary group has addressed to the Senate in this legislature. "We have thus brought around half of all inquiries to the citizenship," emphasizes Thering. His party determines many debates. Ploß adds: "We will continue to work hard to do better in the next general election."
After all, Hügelmann gives the CDU positive testimony when dealing with the admission of the former AfD politician Jörn Kruse, which recently led to a heated argument in the party - with the result that the state executive committee will have to be involved in sensitive personnel issues in the future. "The Christian Democrats are currently the most professionally positioned among the opposition parties because they quickly resolved the AfD-Kruse cause and quickly closed their own ranks again," says Hügelmann. That is the prerequisite for dedicating yourself to content again.
The political scientist is also watching the development of Ploß with excitement. "He has great political talent, but I can't make sense of his focus," says Hügelmann and explains: "Ploss could represent more than the anti-gender steamer, so far he has sold himself below value." The topic of genders promoted by Ploß is not one that employs the sections of the population in which the CDU would be able to connect. There it is crucial which concepts the CDU offers for the port of the future.
"If the CDU manages to be noticed for more than one issue, then it's on the right track," says Hügelmann. For example, red-green would be vulnerable in the design of a livable city center as well as in the area of mobility and the controversial resident parking, especially since this "is intended to reduce parking spaces in order to drive individual motor vehicle traffic out of the districts". According to Hügelmann, the opportunity for constructive debates also arises from how the community of solidarity deals with rising energy prices and the increasing accommodation of refugees.
A dispute within a party in all of this, the political advisor sums up, costs energy that is lacking in the campaign and communication skills and in the development of productive structures to master an election campaign. "Furthermore, we are dealing with a very volatile electorate today, perhaps more so in the federal government than in Hamburg," emphasizes the scientist. If the increasing number of swing voters came across parties that were fighting among themselves instead of dealing with the content of the political opponent and the future of society, they hardly made their cross with the divided party.