North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s richest and most populous state, symbol of the ups and downs of its powerful coal and steel industry, will take part in elections this Sunday. This is a regional election, and almost 13 million voters will vote in this vein – out of a total of 18 million inhabitants – but what happens in this federal state will mark the next steps in national politics. Chancellor Olaf Scholz also has a lot at stake. A victory for the Social Democrats would have confirmed his leadership within five months of his inauguration. The defeat will be seen as a slap in the face for how he handled the Ukrainian crisis.
Polls show that the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats are very even, but with a slight lead of three to four points for second place in this election, called “miniature federal elections.” SPD is around 29% and CDU is as high as 32%, according to the latest ZDF public network survey. North Rhine-Westphalia, where one of the largest industrial centers of Europe is located on the banks of the Rhine and Ruhr, has always been a left-wing state. The SPD ruled for 45 out of 50 years until 2017, when Angela Merkel’s CDU unexpectedly took over its biggest stronghold.
Restoring it has been one of the chancellor’s priorities, who has accompanied 53-year-old Social Democratic candidate Thomas Kuchaty to several campaign events despite the strains of his international agenda. On some campaign posters, Scholz even poses next to Kuchaty, which is not accepted in German politics. His conclusion is ambiguous: if the SPD wins, it will be because the candidate has support and a direct link to the Chancellor; if he loses, it will be interpreted as being taken in by Scholz’s low popularity due to his management during the war in Ukraine.
The SPD needs to bounce back from a painful defeat in 2017, but there is also heavy pressure on the Christian Democrats, who are still licking their wounds from last September’s general election. The candidate they presented, Armin Laschet, was minister-president of North Rhine-Westphalia, and his results were so disastrous that even in his own land he could not defeat the socialists. The CDU now represents 46-year-old Hendrik Wüst, who replaced Laschet last fall. After working for a little over half a year at the head of the Rhine government, he barely had time to convince his fellow citizens of the advantages of his rule. Some commentators have dubbed the “election of unknown candidates.”
In Berlin, Düsseldorf – the state capital – is seen as the first big test of the coalition government that Scholz formed with the Greens and the Liberals. The reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, rampant inflation and the energy crisis caused by Germany’s attempts to get rid of dependence on Russian hydrocarbons will occupy the minds of Rhenish voters.
The most important German election of the year will be a thermometer to see if the prediction made by Scholz after last year’s victory – he spoke of creating a “social democratic decade” – will come true. So far, the two regional elections already held this year have drawn. The SPD won in the Saar in March but were defeated in Schleswig-Holstein last week, where they performed worse and fell behind the Greens in third place.
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There, Daniel Günther, a young connoisseur of the Christian Democrats, used his popularity to campaign almost single-handedly, without resorting to the party acronym. But now the situation is completely different, because the candidate is much less popular. That is why CDU President Friedrich Merz, originally from the Rhineland, imitated Scholz and also participated in campaign events. For the leader of the opposition, this is a litmus test. It needs to reassert its leadership in order to enter the long race to the next general election in 2025. Losing regional elections will deprive him of a possible candidacy for chancellor.
Wüst currently rules in a coalition with the liberals of the FDP, who are getting a very modest result in the polls, around 7 or 8% of the vote. Therefore, it is likely that the Greens with dual intention to vote (16-17%) will become a secondary partner in the next legislative assembly, which also sends a signal at the federal level. The Environment Party is improving its performance in every regional election in parallel with the approval ratings its ministers are reaping in Berlin. Robert Habeck, vice chancellor and minister of the economy and climate, and Annalena Burbock, minister of foreign affairs, are the most popular politicians in the country after the chancellor, according to recent polls. As with the general elections in September, the Greens will have the key to the next government in the Rhineland.
As is often the case with elections in Germany, campaign issues were largely focused on day-to-day concerns. The CDU has promised more police, teachers and medical staff to improve infrastructure so that all municipalities with a population of over 20,000 have good rail or express bus connections and tax exemptions to install solar panels. The SPD focused on jobs, affordable housing and education, insisting that the Rhineland should be climate neutral “but not de-industrialised”.
The closure of most coal mines in the 1980s left a trail of unemployment in the region and forced reconversion. Today, the mining activity that made the Ruhr prosperous has given way to other sectors such as finance. If it were an independent country, this land would be the world’s leading exporter, the regional government boasts on its official website. Thirty-seven of the top 100 German companies are based in the Rhineland, including pharmaceutical company Bayer in Leverkusen and Deutsche Telekom in Bonn. The unemployment rate, however, is one of the highest in Germany at 6.6%, while the national average is 5%.
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