A small Danish minority in northern Germany is shaping up to be kingmaker in one of the last regional votes before the fall national election.
The election of the regional parliament in Schleswig-Holstein on Sunday will have "psychological significance" for the future national government, said Ralf Stegner, leader of the Social Democrats (SPD) in Schleswig-Holstein and the national vice chair of the party. "It's important on the federal level because a red-green government is seeking reelection."
On Thursday, the party's contender to be chancellor, Martin Schulz, took time out to stump for votes in Schleswig-Holstein, making a stop in Husum, "the gray city by the sea" where he proposed to his wife. He told locals he had a "very good feeling" about the vote.
Feelings aside, the SPD has been losing ground in the polls of late but should they win Schleswig-Holstein's closely contested election, they have said they will form a coalition with the Greens and Südschleswigsche Wählerverband (SSW), which represents the Danish minority in the region.
It would be the second time the tiny SSW will have entered into a governing coalition with the SPD in the region, upsetting the conservatives who say the Danish minority party competes on unfair terms.Legoland socialists
Lars Harms is the leader of the SSW's parliamentary group, representing the 50,000 people of Danish descent in a state of 2.8 million. These days, he is very busy, driving around the sparsely populated region to drum up support, eating smørrebrød in a small town just north of the state's capital Kiel with volunteers one day and meeting voters at an after-work valgparty (election party) in a school on the Danish border the next.
The party campaigns on a "Scandinavian society model with a strong welfare state" - a promise that "makes us look leftist here," Harms said. But, he added, the party favors compromise and pragmatism. "It's not an ideology that unites us," he said. "It doesn't matter if one is left or right."
In addition to the Danish minority in Schleswig-Holstein, the party represents the Frisians and is the only German party funded by a foreign state.
"If someone calls us Legoland socialists because we want more social justice ... then I can live with that," said Harms, during a campaign stop on Thursday. "We like to be Legoland socialists, if that means that working parents can get holiday care for their children."
About 80 percent of the SSW budget comes from the Danish state, according to the party's secretary Martin Lorenzen, and figures published by the German government show that the Danish ministry of culture has already paid more than €240,000 to the party this year.
This direct funding by a foreign state is only allowed because of an exemption in German party law. "It is a compensation because we hardly get donations from private persons," Harms said. "Other parties like the SPD or the CDU [Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats] get hundreds of thousands of donations from companies - we don't."
Steffen Bang, head of the Danish Sydslesvigsekretariatet (South Schleswig Secretariat), is managing a fund of the Danish parliament's money dedicated to supporting the Danish minority in the neighboring country. (The Danish government pays more than €65 million every year for Danish educational and cultural activities in the region.)
Bang told POLITICO that the fund doesn't interfere directly in day-to-day politics or exert pressure when it comes to the political program. But, he added, "there is an expectation that elected politicians from SSW on all levels work towards securing, maintaining and perhaps also widening the rights and the influence of the Danish minority in Schleswig."
"We have very tight relations to the Danish Folketing [the parliament] and stand in a permanent exchange with all parties except the far-right," Harms said. "But we are not a fifth column."A few Danes make a big difference
The northernmost state in Germany, Schleswig-Holstein comprises most of the historical duchy of Holstein and the southern part of the former duchy of Schleswig - for centuries a contested area.
In 1920, a referendum split the region into a northern part that joined Denmark and a southern part that went with Germany, leaving minorities on either side.
The Danish minority by-and-large preserved its own culture, traditions and language, running special Danish-language kindergartens, schools, retirement homes and a newspaper.
Since this Danish minority comprises less than 2 percent of Schleswig-Holstein's population, a Danish minority party would be hard-pressed to reach the 5 percent threshold to get into parliament. However, to counter discrimination following World War II, the Danish and German governments in 1955 scrapped electoral thresholds for minority parties in the border region.
Today, however, SSW has become quite powerful, despite its small stature. In the last election in 2012, the party won 4.6 percent of the vote, earning three seats and allowing the minority party to help form a coalition government.
It wasn't an easy decision. In previous elections, the party stayed on the sidelines, preferring instead to exercise pressure outside government.
But in 2012, the situation was different. "The former CDU government had cut the funding of Danish schools," Harms said.
The former government reportedly cut 15 percent of funding for the schools to save money, arguing that Danish private schools were still better funded than public schools and that Danish children could also go to public schools. Some among the Danish minority argued this amounted to discrimination and an attempt at forced assimilation.
"So we decided to go into government to roll that back," Harms said.
In return for its support, the party got the ministry of justice, culture and Europe - an arrangement that didn't go over well with everyone. Politically, the SSW has fought to ban fracking, advocated for laws on collective pay and the promotion of the Frisian language.Unfair competition
Tobias Loose, the regional leader of the CDU's youth organization in Schleswig-Holstein, supported a lawsuit in the state's constitutional court protesting against the SSW's exemption from the threshold to get into the state parliament - which effectively kept the conservatives out of government on what he says are unfair terms.
"In a democracy, every vote should have the same value," Loose said. "If I vote for a party and it falls short of the 5 percent threshold, my vote is lost. But if I vote for the SSW, that's not the case." Besides, he said, "the SSW isn't only pursuing minority policies - there is hardly any difference to the Greens or the SPD."
Historically, the German Danes faced discrimination but Loose says that's no longer the case. In fact, the Danish minority is "one of the most privileged minorities in Europe," he said. "Almost excessively privileged in comparison to other minorities like the Turkish or the Italian community."
It's an argument that Stegner, the regional leader of the SPD, has heard a lot. "You can't compare the situation of the minorities, it's completely different historical contexts," he said.
Stegner also praised the "excellent cooperation" with the SSW in all matters, stating that it pursued a "reasonable and exemplary" minority policy. "The exemption is guaranteed in our constitution," Stegner added. "I don't see a need to change it."
In 2012, the constitutional court took Stegner's side. "A political judgment," said Loose.
The dispute could get fresh fuel this year. In the latest poll from German public television ARD, the SSW was on 3 percent of the vote which, if it holds true, would allow it to become a kingmaker in the north once again.