Social Democratic premier Hannelore Kraft and the Green Party's Sylvia Löhrmann have governed the most populous state in Germany, North Rhine-Westphalia, for the last two years. Both women are now seeking re-election.
In Dortmund's city center, a Free Democratic Party (FDP) election campaigner attempted to thrust an election pamphlet into Sylvia Löhrmann's hands: "There, something new for you." Looking her in the face, he said: "You're from the Greens, oh dear, oh dear."
Löhrmann, the Green Party's leading candidate, laughed and carried on walking. She was pleased to be recognized in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), home to almost 18 million people.
That was not the case during the election campaign two years ago. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party were forced to form a center-left minority government following the election in 2010. They needed to rely on transitory minorities to implemented their policies. But only until mid-March this year, when their budget proposal failed to pass parliament and sparked a new election.
Shortly after the encounter with the pro-business FDP campaigner, Löhrmann stood next to Jürgen Trittin, the Green Party's federal parliamentary group chairman, on a campaign podium in front of the Reinoldi Church in Dortmund.
The MC emphasized how good many people found the fact that the state was governed by two women, Löhrmann and SPD state premier Hannelore Kraft. The public reacted with applause and cheers.
Answering the question of what the two women have done differently to their male predecessors, Löhrmann replied: "We're down-to-earth, we don't need to put on a show. We've rolled up our sleeves and got on with attending to the affairs of NRW pragmatically, without a big hoopla."
Kraft promises to take care of business
Kraft approached the election campaign very directly. "Instead of running away, I asked, 'who can I help?' " With these words she touched a nerve with the voters in Ahlen, in northern NRW. Kraft listened attentively, posed questions with genuine interest, and offered advise and embraces where she could.
She says she stands for a supportive politics that assists children early in life, rather than pay the cost of repairing the damage later on. In this vein, Kraft argued, she would tackle the state's debt levels.
The crowds gathered in the town square were mainly in their fifties. But there were also school children who wanted better teaching, a student who thanked the "mother of the state" for the abolition of tuition fees, and an unemployed woman who sought advice, alongside members of the Turkish Schools and Families Association and pensioners. The Social Democrat promised to take care of all their problems.
The town's former SPD mayor Günter Harms compared Kraft's visit to Ahlen favorably to that of another SPD party leader: "She's doing really well, I'm pleased. It is surprisingly well attended, I must say," he said. "I once stood here with Wolfgang Clement before a much smaller crowd, even though the weather was similar."
Overcoming ideological differences
Jürgen Trittin also believes that the SPD-Green minority government were able to lead NRW for two years because they behaved differently to their male predecessors, who "in their self-righteousness and arrogance actually prolonged the crisis in NRW. The political style of Sylvia Löhrmann and Hannelore Kraft is responsive, it is the consolidation of difficult and contradictory positions."
Ultimately, the coalition was doomed – they were governing with a minority. But they successfully overcame opposition for some time. As education minister, Löhrmann reached a compromise which even the opposition Christian Democrats in Düsseldorf agreed to.
Both politicians come from the Ruhr region. Löhrmann grew up next to a zinc plant in Essen, where, she remembers, soot covered their washing. Kraft comes from humble circumstances in the small town of Mülheim in the Ruhr region. Both went to university, entering politics much later. Löhrmann initially worked as a lecturer, Kraft as a business consultant.
There were joint appearances in this year's election campaign. "In contrast to what happens in parliament, where the CDU and the FDP are permanently at each other throats, we want to carry on this way," said Kraft, believing her cooperation with Löhrmann was beneficial.
The Ruhr region, the home of both women, was once characterized by its coal and steel industries. It is still grappling with structural transformations. Cities are nestled closely together, and five million people from over 200 countries live together in the most densely populated conurbation in Europe. As a child, Löhrmann was a regular at Essen soccer stadium, and when she finds the time, Kraft still goes to Borussia Mönchengladbach soccer games.
Clear power structures
Nobody can predict how the elections will go for the two women. Kraft and Löhrmann said they would fight to the end for their parties. The race in NRW is particularly exciting this year due to the renewed popularity of FDP and the buzz around the new kids on the block, the Pirate Party. Opinion polls suggest voters will make their decision at the last minute in the polling booths. A lot also depends on the numbers of people who turn out to vote.
Kraft no longer wants a minority government. "Please ensure clear power structures this time," she told the crowd in Ahlen. "Please go and vote on May 13!"
Author: Andrea Grunau / hw
Editor: Ben Knight