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Germany

Opinion: Merkel has a new rival

The Social Democrats and Greens have handily won the election in Germany's biggest state. Hannelore Kraft is now an obvious rival to Angela Merkel in next year's national election.

Rarely was an election result so clear. The chancellor's party stared into the abyss. On their home turf, the Social Democrats (SPD) bounded back, and Angela Merkel's coalition partner, the Free Democrats, experienced something of a rebirth. The Left party, the successor to the East German communist party, was virtually ignored by the electorate and will not be represented in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's largest state. The Greens retained their high support in NRW and the Pirates, whose policy platforms are largely unknown, once again made it into a state parliament.

Looking towards Berlin, the consequences are clear: For Angela Merkel, the federal election campaign has already begun. If she wants to be reelected chancellor in the fall of 2013, she needs to start planning immediately. Her pro-market coalition partner, not long ago given up for dead, has made a comeback - and a strong one. The Free Democratic Party (FDP) is still the same as the party that just muddled through several months of crisis - but it has a new superstar and his name is Christian Lindner.

Volker Wagener

Deutsche Welle's Volker Wagener: Merkel will face the most difficult challenger she could imagine

Just months earlier, the blond-haired young man, who won a won a seat in the NRW parliament in Düsseldorf at the age of 22, resigned his post as general secretary of the federal party. He was frustrated with Philipp Rösler, the party leader, who had failed to move quickly and had earned a reputation as a procrastinator. Now, with his party's dream result behind him, he intends to have his way. In the short term, Lindner's electoral showing has saved Rösler's job, but in the long term, if not in the medium term, it will cost Rösler his job.

For Angela Merkel, the greatest defeat of her Christian Democratic Party (CDU) in the history of Germany's most populous state has a silver lining, because the resurgent FDP can help the CDU retain a parliamentary majority next year. After Sunday's result, she can't rely on her own party's ability to do so. This assumes the FDP will continue to soar. But this is hard to imagine under the leadership of Philipp Rösler. All signs point to Christian Lindner.

Röttgen pushes himself towards the exit

Angela Merkel bears little responsibility for the disastrous outcome of the election in the western German state. Her self-appointed successor, Norbert Röttgen, pushed himself towards the exit from the first hour of the campaign, as he left the question open as to whether he would stay in NRW or jump ship to Berlin in the event of a defeat. The lesson is clear: The voters will punish any federal politician who abuses a state election campaign for their own career planning. And now Angela Merkel has one rival less. She can therefore concentrate fully on her challenge to the SPD. And that's exactly the question she will probably have to rethink. Because the victor of the day is Hannelore Kraft. Until now, the Social Democrat was barely mentioned on the national level. She has left the CDU more than twelve percentage points behind her and - most importantly - her success did not come at the expense of her Green coalition partners. In other words, her red-green coalition received a strong mandate.

Consequences for the federal government

In Berlin, party strategists on all sides will now be pondering this result. State elections in North Rhine-Westphalia have always been a test for the federal government. And if the result of this election day sends a message, then after the experiment of the black-red CDU-SPD grand coalition in 2005-2010 and the present black-yellow CDU-FDP coalition, red-green, which governed under Gerhard Schröder from 1998 to 2005, could make a comeback. And in 2013, the voters in NRW seem to have decided Angela Merkel will face the most difficult challenger she could imagine.

Hannelore Kraft has one thing that her party rivals do not: She has clearly won an election. This distinguishes her from the current crop of party bigwigs: Peer Steinbrück, the rhetorically brilliant financial expert, and Frank-Walter Steinmaier, who is indeed popular, but who lacks the fire for the top job. And Kraft's easygoing ability to curry favor with people is her trump card over Sigmar Gabriel, the party leader, whom many consider vain and therefore not capable of gaining a majority. The old adage still applies: If North Rhine-Westphalia, coughs, Berlin catches the flu. After May 13, 2012, the leaders of all the parties will be rethinking everything.

Author: Volker Wagener / sgb
Editor: av

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