Opinions - 14.08.2013 - 00:00 

Elections after the flood

Schröder in wellingtons, Merkel in hiking boots: coping with political crises caused by natural disasters can tip the scales during elections. Michael M. Bechtel about floods as election workers.
Source: HSG Newsroom


21 August 2013. In Central Europe in late May the rain never stopped for days on end. Germany alone had more than 22 billion litres of precipitation. This is twice the volume of Lake Lucerne. Soon after, the Elbe in Eastern Germany reached water levels which exceeded that of this century’s high of 2002. The destructive effect of the floods was enormous: experts estimate that the damage amounts to EUR 12bn.

The federal government reacted quickly. It deployed the armed forces in order to help people on site and hurriedly paved the way for an act to set up an extensive aid fund. Politicians of all parties visited the areas affected in order to get a first-hand impression of the situation. As was the case with the Elbe flood of 2002, the federal elections are now only a few weeks away. 

Demonstrating willingness to help
If you compare this year’s federal elections with those of 2002, both the similarity of the events and their timing are striking. The then SPD/Green government also responded to the once-in-a-century floods of the summer of 2002 without any hesitation. It deployed more than 40,000 soldiers of the German armed forces and spent more than EUR 7bn to help people in the areas affected. Flood aid subsequently developed into one of the central election issues where, in various commentators’ views, the SPD was able to score points off the CDU. But what was the effect of the extensive flood aid on the election result in September 2002? Did the government’s action pay off in the elections? Or had the citizens forgotten about the politicians’ willingness to help by the time of the elections?

Vote bonus of nine percentage points
According to a HSG study co-authored with Jens Hainmueller of the MIT and published in the American Journal of Political Science, the SPD’s share of the vote in the 2002 federal elections would have been about seven per cent lower in the areas affected if the great flood had not taken place. The electorate in the flooded regions rewarded the government perceptibly for the quick and extensive flood aid. The analyses also reveal that conservative voters, in particular, were persuaded to cast their votes for the governing SPD instead of the CDU. These increases probably secured the SPD’s election victory at the time.

But flood aid also had long-term political consequences: even in the federal election three years later, the SPD still profited from an average “flood aid bonus” of two per cent in those constituencies that had been affected by the flood. It was only in the 2009 federal election that the SPD was no longer rewarded for the support it had given. In the long term, then, the flood earned the SPD a vote bonus of nine percentage points.

Flood aid for the federal elections
In the 2002 Elbe flood, the government’s rapid and resolute action had a distinctive impact on the results of the federal elections of 22 September 2002. Can this result be projected onto this year’s federal elections, which will again take place on 22 September? Although this appears plausible in many respects, there may still be important differences. In 2002, for instance, the then candidate for the chancellorship, Edmund Stoiber, was conspicuous by his absence from the Elbe area until very late in the flood.

In this way, he made it easier for the incumbent, Gerhard Schröder, to successfully claim this issue as his own and to score with the electorate. In addition, the 2013 flood took place about a month earlier than that of 2002, when the highest water level was only reached in mid-August and the clean-up operations lasted into early September. Whether and to what extent the federal government will be able to profit from the 2013 flood aid in September remains to be seen.

Photo: Photocase / steffne