The party of Chancellor Angela Merkel suffered a devastating blow in the North Rhine-Westphalia state elections. But that wasn't the only surprise of the evening.
Probably the most important election of 2012 in Germany was the election of the new parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) on May 13. It did not produce a changeover in power. Hannelore Kraft of the Social Democratic Party of Germany will be able to continue her alliance with the Greens. Although the result was predictable, the whole country watched this election with bated breath - including the chancellor in Berlin.
But this is not unusual. Since nearly 18 million people live in NRW, and it is responsible for a quarter of Germany's gross domestic product, an election in North Rhine-Westphalia is always seen as a national election in miniature. And its elections in 1966, 1995 and 2005 marked the first appearances of party coalitions that later formed in the federal government.
Merkel's crown prince is the biggest loser
The center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) earned the lowest result in their history in this election. For the eleventh time in a row, Angela Merkel's national governing coalition with the pro-market Free Democrats (FDP) was forced to accept a defeat at the state level. The left-wing alliance of Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens has been strengthened by this election. Yet this is only partly a signal about the balance of power in the federal government. Angela Merkel enjoys very high popularity levels among the general population, and her party holds a strong lead in national opinion polls. There's no reason to think that the government in Berlin is now shaky. But it's still a warning, which is how the chancellor will have interpreted it. In recent defeats, she has always tried to distance herself from state election results.
The consequences of this choice are more long-term in nature. Röttgen, the big loser for the Christian Democrats, is also deputy chairman of the CDU and German environment minister. He was considered a potential successor to Angela Merkel. To prepare himself for this, Röttgen wanted to use NRW as his power base. That plan has gone spectacularly wrong. Röttgen resigned from the state chairmanship of the CDU on election night and is now returning to Berlin, badly damaged. In the national capital, he has quite a few enemies within the party and critics of his work, especially when it comes to the policy reversal on nuclear power. Röttgen has faced strong international criticism for failing to show clear leadership on the issue. With the predictable defeat in NRW, he is now also severely weakened as a politician of national stature.
A new powerful woman in the Social Democrats
The Social Democrats (SPD) will nominate a challenger to Angela Merkel in early 2013. But election winner Hannelore Kraft, who has now become a strong voice in the SPD, said explicitly in the campaign that she does not want to be the party's candidate. Until now, with the SPD's poor performance on the national level, it would be a mission without much promise of success.
However, if the polls for the federal SPD should improve significantly, the internal party pressure would grow on Hannelore Kraft. The SPD is currently being led by a troika, each of whom would like to be the chancellor candidate, but who are less popular when compared directly with Angela Merkel.
Turnaround for Germany's Free Democrats
Interest in the election in North Rhine-Westphalia was high, in part because the German political landscape is now very dynamic - something that can be seen with the so-called small parties in particular. The pro-market Free Democrats (FDP) suffered greatly under these new developments in recent years. In the 2009 parliamentary elections, the FDP still received nearly 15 percent of the vote. But for months, the party languished in opinion polls under the all-important 5 percent threshold that decides whether a party may enter parliament. Jokes were told in Berlin that the FDP was looking for a new tenant for its party headquarters. And for a long time, hardly anyone believed this situation was likely to change.
The turning point came with the parliamentary election a week ago in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, which has now been bolstered with a very strong result in North Rhine-Westphalia. That's thanks to the FDP leadership candidate and party favorite Christian Lindner, who had retired from national politics in late 2011. He will be state chairman and head of the FDP parliamentary group in the NRW parliament in Düsseldorf. Lindner wants to revive the FDP's traditions of past decades and thus free his party from the image of a purely pro-business party. In the short term, it looks unlikely that he will go to Berlin and replace the unfortunate acting FDP Chairman Philipp Rösler. Lindner has not recently been angling for a position at the national level. However, if the FDP is successful in the general election, Lindner's role could be renegotiated, including a position in the federal government.
Pirate Party on course for success
The main beneficiary of the political turmoil in Germany has been the Pirate Party, now the most successful of all Pirate Parties around the world. The party has now managed to move into a fourth state parliament in Germany. The Pirates have taken up the cause of modernizing politics through increased transparency and with a lot of Internet technology. They were thus able to win the support of many voters who chose to protest against the established system. The Pirate Party is considered to be a small people's party - a party appealing to voters from all parts of society - because it could pull voters from all the other parties.
Now the Pirates have a good chance of further electoral success. However, their past vague policy statements will now also be tested in the real world. The Pirates fought against being assigned to a political category. The question is how long this attitude can hold out, especially because the newly elected national leadership of the Pirate Party has openly stated it is a left-wing party. That could cost voters from the right.
Setback for the post-communists
The Left Party failed to win election to the NRW parliament, and has thus lost a pillar of its so-called western expansion. The ultra-leftist party is the successor to the East German communist party and is considered a third people's party in eastern Germany alongside the CDU and SPD. But in western Germany, it is presently failing to establish a foothold. This is increasingly costing the party, which is currently undergoing a leadership crisis, its potential role as a provider of a majority for a left-wing coalition with the SPD and Greens.
If everything goes according to plan, there will be another state election before the next general election in Germany, and thus another opportunity for political signals. Yet for all the domestic political considerations, the euro crisis should not be disregarded. If the situation worsens and the German economy shows signs of weakness, this will certainly have an impact on the voting behavior of citizens.
Author: Kay-Alexander Scholz / sgb
Editor: Richard Connor