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100 days ahead of the NRW state election: What you need to know

The German state of North Rhine-Westphalia will elect a new parliament on May 14. The election is perceived as a trial run for the federal election later in the year. Here's DW's overview of what you need to know.

Deutschland Sitzung des NRW-Landtags in Düsseldorf (picture-alliance/dpa/F. Gambarini)

Who will enter NRW's state parliament? The outcome is unpredictable, not just because of the AfD

Why is the NRW election perceived as a test run?

State elections are a barometer for the federal elections. Depending on the state, voters take to the polls every four or five years. Three state elections are scheduled for 2017: voting will take place in Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia. The most populous German state with its rural and urban regions, its 18 million residents and 13.2 million eligible voters is viewed as a particularly relevant indicator for the outcome of the general parliamentary election. In addition, NRW is also the state with the largest Muslim population in Germany.

Who are the candidates?

NRW has been governed by Hannelore Kraft since 2010. The Social Democrat intends to defend her post of state premier in 2017. Her predecessors, Peer Steinbrück (Social Democrats) and Jürgen Rüttgers (Christian Democrats) were unsuccessful in this endeavour. Kraft continues to be much more popular among voters than her competitor Armin Laschet (CDU): according to opinion polls 46 percent of NRW residents would vote for Kraft, only 16 percent for Laschet - although the state premier is facing numerous problems.

Deutschland SPD Hannelore Kraft (picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kastl)

The opposition puts state premier Hannelore Kraft under pressure

In 2015, NRW's economic growth was at zero percent, trailing behind all the other German states. Incidents like the Cologne New Year's eve assaults on women and the terror attack targeting a Christmas market at Berlin's Breitscheidplatz - perpetrator Anis Amri was known to NRW security authorities as an "Islamist threat" - have diminished the state's reputation when it comes to internal security.

The CDU's top candidate Armin Laschet has, therefore, repeatedly lashed out at both the state government, made up of Social Democrats and Greens, and the state's interior minister, Ralf Jäger. Laschet - also the CDU's parliamentary party deputy chairperson on the nationwide level and, as such, a supporter of Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policy - touts an investigative committee looking into the Amri case. In addition, he wants to reshape NRW's economic and educational policies.

It doesn't faze Laschet too much that the SPD's poll ratings on the nationwide level improved after Martin Schulz's candidacy for chancellorship was announced. He was convinced "that in North Rhine-Westphalia the Schulz effect is a relatively small one," he said during a press conference in the state's capital, Düsseldorf.

Deputy state premier and NRW education minister Sylvia Löhrmann will join the election race on behalf of the Green Party. At intraparty voting for the NRW top candidacy, her approval rating was 81 percent. Prior to the 2012 election she had achieved a massive 98 percent.

Bonn Demonstrierende Muslime gegen Rechtsradikalismus (dapd)

A Muslim protest against right-wing extremists in Bonn. NRW is the state with the largest Muslim population in Germany.

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NRW's Free Democrats field their chairman, Christian Lindner, who is also party leader on the national level. In NRW, the Free Democrats have set their sights on a coalition with the CDU.

A software developer from the west German town of Essen, Michele Marsching, leads NRW's Pirate Party into the race. 2012 saw the "Pirates" (who advocate internet freedom and political transparency) entering NRW's state parliament for the first time, having gained 7.8 percent of the vote. A repeat of the 2012 success in May this year seems very unlikely as current opinion polls see the "Pirates" at one percent at most.

Marcus Pretzell is the top candidate fielded by the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD). The former FDP member is a contested figure among his own ranks. In September 2016, Pretzell was voted top NRW candidate with a mere 54 percent of delegate votes. The 43-year-old also represents the AfD in the European Parliament - as a delegate of the ENF faction, a parliamentary grouping led by the French National Front leader Marine Le Pen that is often labeled right-wing extremist.

Which coalitions are possible?

According to opinion polls, change is imminent. Currently, SPD and CDU are running neck and neck at around 31 percent each. Compared to 2012, this is a massive loss for the SPD; for the CDU, by contrast, this means an increase of 4.5 percentage points.

Those figures indicate that neither the Social Democrat/Green camp ("Red-Green") nor the Christian Democrat/Free Democrat camp ("Black-Yellow") can garner a parliamentary majority. A Grand Coalition is possible, as well as a coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and the Left Party. Hannelore Kraft has repeatedly labeled the Left Party (led by Özlem Demirel) "unfit for government duties"; however, the state premier does not want to rule out that type of coalition - known as "Red-Red-Green" - once and for all. FDP chief Christian Lindner, in turn, has dismissed what is known as a "traffic light coalition" - Social Democrats, Free Democrats, Greens. All top candidates have ruled out a coalition with the AfD.

Which issues will be crucial during the election campaign?

Deutschland Innenausschuss Landtag NRW Ralf Jäger zum Terrorfall Amri (picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg)

Interior minister Ralf Jäger has come under fire over the Anis Amri case

In NRW, the primary issues concern security, education and economic policies. The Anis Amri terror case has developed into a severe test for the government: whereas Hannelore Kraft continues to resolutely back her interior minister, Ralf Jäger, the opposition accuses NRW authorities of not having taken Amri off the streets in time. FDP and Pirates have even called for Jäger to step down. With regard to ordinary crime, opposition parties have put the state government under pressure as well. They criticize so-called "no go areas" in various German cities, problems caused by criminal gangs and clans and a rising number of Muslim extremists.

Within the realm of education, the parties are divided with regard to issuing a diploma after only 8 years at an academic high school (known as "G8"), implementation of inclusion guidelines (integrating students with disabilities), and the financing of university education. In light of poor results in the areas of economic growth and state debt reduction, the opposition is accusing the Kraft government of pursuing the wrong economic policies.

What is at stake for the AfD?

When NRW residents last cast their ballots in 2012, the AfD didn't even exist. Now, it is very likely that it will enter the state parliament, and it could, in the process, even become the third largest party in that chamber. A current opinion poll sees the right-wing populists with 12 percent, ahead of the Greens. Such a success could have an important effect on the federal election, not least because the NRW ballot will be the final state election of 2017. Since all other parties have refused to collaborate with the AfD, it is not clear what the party will be able to achieve politically in NRW.