The ruling coalition of Germany’s largest state teetered on the brink of collapse on Wednesday, as the Social Democratic premier of North Rhine-Westphalia refused to commit himself to his junior partners the Greens.
All eyes are focused on Peer Steinbrück, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia.
In recent months, the North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) center-left coalition of Social Democrats and Greens has begun unraveling over a number of issues including energy and transport policy. Some observers think the state’s premier, Peer Steinbrück, would prefer to ditch the Greens in order to form a government with the free-market liberals, the Free Democrats (FDP).
Steinbrück on Wednesday morning met with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder a day earlier than expected to discuss the crisis. Some politicians fear the problems plaguing NRW could spill over to the so-called "red-green" coalition of Social Democrats and Greens on the national level.
"If North Rhine-Westphalia can’t sort itself out then it would certainly have an affect federally," Greens co-leader Reinhard Bütikofer told ZDF public television.
Schröder hopes to avoid split
Schröder is keen to avoid a split in NRW’s coalition, since it is both Germany’s most populous state and a regional stronghold for his Social Democrats Party (SPD). He also wants to avoid aggravating the Greens in parliament ahead of a key vote on his "Agenda 2010" for welfare and labor reforms.
Schröder’s government has a razor-thin majority in the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, and in order to pass needed cuts in welfare benefits and to loosen restrictive job protection laws, he will need near total support from both the SPD and the Greens.
A break in the NRW state coalition could also endanger Schröder’s federal agenda, since the state would abstain during votes on "red-green" legislation in the Bundesrat, the upper legislative chamber of parliament which represents the states’ interests.
Some of the Greens in North Rhine-Westphalia say they are being used as a scapegoat for a crisis within the SPD. In recent months, the Social Democrats have slumped in opinion polls as the national debate over Schröder’s proposed reforms have pulled at the party’s popularity. Despite NRW’s long Social Democratic tradition, some Greens believe the SPD is afraid it could lose power in the next state elections in 2005.
"Greens are the scapegoat"
NRW state crest
"I consider what is happening is that the Greens are being made the scapegoat for the difficult situation that the Social Democrats find themselves in at the moment," said NRW deputy premier and Greens politician Michael Vesper.
After meeting with Schröder, Steinbrück said the decision over whether to continue governing with the Greens had been postponed until mid-June, when the NRW state budget negotiations are due to begin. But the chancellor was unable on Wednesday to convince Steinbrück to commit himself to his junior coalition partner as Schröder would have liked.
"Before the air has been cleared, one won’t be able to speak openly about continuing with the coalition," Steinbrück told the Reuters news agency.