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Germany's largest state holds pivotal election

May 13, 2022

The impact of the Ukraine war is on voters' minds as they head to the polls in North Rhine-Westphalia this Sunday. The vote is seen as a bellwether for the new federal government in Berlin.

Olaf Scholz giving a fiery speech in Essen on May first
Chancellor Olaf Scholz has seen his approval ratings fallImage: Christoph Reichwein/IMAGO

The vote in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) is called the "federal election in miniature" — because NRW is Germany's most populous and economically important state as well as one of its most diverse. Coming only eight months after the country's national election, the vote in this state of 18 million people takes on a special significance.

In Berlin, Chancellor Olaf Scholz's center-left Social Democrats (SPD) are in a new coalition with the Green Party and the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP). Its response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, soaring inflation, and an energy crisis brought on by Germany trying to wean itself off its reliance on Russian gas are expected to influence the voters at the state level, too.

election posters showing Thomas Kutschaty and Hendrik Wüst
Neither the SPD nor the CDU have a very well-known top candidateImage: Rene Traut/IMAGO

NRW is home to Germany's "rust belt," the Ruhrgebiet, West Germany's former coal mining area and traditional SPD stronghold. But the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) have been ruling the state in a coalition with the FDP, after pulling off a small upset during the last state election in 2017. 

Currently, the CDU and SPD are polling neck and neck at 30% and 28%, respectively, according to pollster Infratest dimap.

The importance of NRW's election for the whole of Germany is hard to overstate, explains political scientist Klaus Schubert, a professor at the University of Münster. "It's as big as a whole country, as big as the entire Netherlands, for example," and it has a GDP roughly the same size. Therefore, Schubert tells DW: "The issues here are the same facing the whole country. The war in Ukraine and energy supply are top on everyone's minds."

Indeed, NRW's high number of low-income earners are already struggling to cope with rising energy and food prices.

infographic showing which topics matter most to NRW voters

CDU seeking symbolic victories

"However," Schubert explains, "on the state level, the lead candidate is even more important than the party they represent. That's why there's such an open race in NRW this year. On the one hand, we have state Premier Hendrik Wüst [of the CDU], who has only been in office half a year —  he doesn't have a solidified image to bring to this election."

Following the political demise of NRW Premier Armin Laschet after his failed bid for chancellor in 2021, Wüst ascended into the role of state leader last October without being directly elected. A former lobbyist with the firm Eutop and state lawmaker, Wüst has been keen to rub shoulders with Daniel Günter, a fellow CDU member who won re-election as the state Premier of Schleswig-Holstein in a landslide.

Friedrich Merz, the national CDU leader who was born in and still lives in NRW, has hailed that success last Sunday as a "major tailwind," for Wüst. Merz himself has been trying to collect as many symbolic victories as possible, even making a well-publicized trip to Kyiv at a time when Chancellor Scholz was still declining to travel there.

"The CDU must once again win over 30% of the vote nationwide. I will not give up the claim to be the major big tent party in Germany. The election in North Rhine-Westphalia is an important step on the way," Merz said at a campaign event in Bad Salzuflen this week.

Klaus Schubert disagrees: "Yes, the CDU won in Schleswig-Holstein, but right before that, the SPD won big in the Saarland state election a few weeks ago."

"Merz talks too much about big-picture economic issues," Schubert feels, "but top on the minds of NRW voters are the environmental and social policies, like education and mobility. In general, the CDU has not talked enough about social issues in the past few years."

Campaign poster showing Kutschaty and Scholz together
Thomas Kutschaty has been promoting his close relationship with Chancellor ScholzImage: Elizabeth Schumacher/DW

SPD candidate

Wüst's main rival is the SPD's Thomas Kutschaty, a career lawyer from a working-class background who has been a state lawmaker since 2005 and was NRW's justice minister for seven years. Lately, Kutschaty has been actively promoting his relationship with Chancellor Scholz on the campaign trail, despite the latter's battered reputation after much of the public perceived him as dragging his feet on delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine.

Schubert does not expect last-minute support from Berlin to be very helpful on Sunday. "Either party really only has to gain 1 or 2% more than they are polling now to be able to secure a majority with their preferred coalition partner," that is, the Greens for the SPD and the FDP for the CDU.

Garzweiler mine
Forests and villages have been razed to make room for brown coal mining in Germany's 'rust belt'Image: Mircea Gherase

Smaller parties in the spotlight

With the two lead candidates in a dead heat and far away from an outright majority, smaller parties will become necessary coalition partners.

The business-friendly FDP has done little to win the hearts of voters in five years as junior coalition partners: After winning 12.6% of the vote in 2017, they are now polling at only 7%, despite promising to invest in new technologies as a way to make the economy more sustainable. The FDP has been in charge of the state's Economy and Energy Ministry.  There have been huge controversies in recent years as an ancient forest was cleared to make room for brown coalfield at a time when the state had already vowed to phase out coal by 2030.

In the current crisis, both CDU and SPD have indicated a willingness to postpone the coal phaseout by several years. "I'm not shutting anything down until I have other sources of energy," Kutschaty explained in a debate on regional broadcaster WDR.

#DailyDrone: North Rhine-Westphalia

Far-right decline

The far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) saw its first major defeat in last week's state election: In Schleswig-Holstein, it failed to clear the 5% hurdle to re-enter parliament.

"That is important," Schubert explains, "because they are also not doing well in NRW. They will likely enter parliament — but with fewer seats, and their support is trending downward."

Political scientist Martin Florack with Duisburg University agrees and points to the AfD's "chronic closeness to Russia" and the fact that the party's NRW deputies also traveled to Crimea. "In this situation, it is likely to be difficult for the AfD to win votes beyond its core constituency," Florack says.

Despite having their largest state membership in NRW with 8,830 people, the Left Party looks set to again fail to gain the necessary 5% to re-enter parliament in NRW.

Green kingmakers

The one party looking likely to make huge gains compared to 2017 is the Green Party, which is currently looking at 16% support — up from 6.4% five years ago.

"The Greens have been excellent at communicating, especially to younger voters," Klaus Schubert said. "And they have given themselves credibility in recent years by being in governing coalitions, at the state level and now nationally."

Climate change is impacting peoples' lives in NRW. There were devastating wildfires in 2018 and massive heatwaves, as well as deadly floods in the Ahr valley last summer. The natural disasters "are a very important issue here, and have made many voters more sympathetic to the Greens," Schubert points out.

If the Greens do indeed make the huge leap the polls are projecting, and the SPD and CDU remain neck and neck, the environmentalists will find themselves kingmakers in the "miniature federal election" just as they were in the real one last September.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

Elizabeth Schumacher
Elizabeth Schumacher Elizabeth Schumacher reports on gender equity, immigration, poverty and education in Germany.
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