Another test for Merkel: State election in North Rhine-Westphalia

NRW is the most populous state in Germany.


How important is it, in your opinion, for Angela Merkel’s CDU to score well in North Rhine-Westphalia election on Sunday?


Sebastian Bukow, Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Forschungsinformation und Qualitätsicherung

As the last days show, the CDU has already accepted a quite worse result in the NRW election on Sunday (it might even be the worst one in CDU NRW – history; and it might be far below federal level as well). It is quite surprising that CDU frontrunner Röttgen performs so bad. But he made several mistakes during his campaign, the first already at the beginning of his campaign (not deciding to come to NRW after the election independently from the election result). Due to this miscarried campaign the CDU NRW is now positioned even worse than at the beginning of this campaign.

On the other hand Merkels coalition partner, Liberal Democrats FDP, are most likely to remain in NRWs parliament – what was not that in the last months (and of course is still unclear, but I expect the FDP will stay in the Landtag of NRW).

Bringing these two aspects together, for Merkels government (and for Merkel) the (presumably) bad result of CDU on Sunday will not be so harmful in a direct way: It will be Röttgen who will be charged for that, and will lead to a party-leadership discussion in NRW (but not on federal level). This was already made clear in the last days, when Merkel denied the idea of Röttgen that this election might be a “small federal election” as well (an it is true in this case that federal issues are less important in the campaign, it is a highly personalized election / competition between Kraft and Röttgen. And when the FDP stays in parliament at least the coalition of Merkel will be stabilized a little bit (even if the FDP might discuss the party chairman question again). For the CDU on federal level the popularity of Merkel will be pacifying, and the fact that CDU remains on the first position in ale recent surveys. But what will be troublesome is the (at least temporary) change of the party system with the strength of pirate party and the weakness of former communists (Die Linke) and the liberals (FDP). Within this new situation, the CDU will be in trouble when looking for a (new) coalition partner in 2013, and of course this is already discussed within the CDU. And another problem will be dangerous for Merkel: The fact, that her party did not perform very well in almost all Länder elections after 2009. Furthermore a weakened Federal Environment Minister Röttgen could be a problem for Merkels nuclear policy – the policy shift of Merkel/Röttgen after Fukushima is still unaccepted in relevant parts of the CDU. This issue might pop up again e.g. within the party program process for the next federal election.

Will the CDU’s defeat in NRW somehow influence also Merkel’s approach towards Europe?

I don’t think that this will take place as a result of the NRW election – it is not really an issue within the NRW campaign, although red/green in NRW had a problem with their level of debt in the last two years. FDP tries to get a point at this issue, but it doesn’t work very well. But there might be moderate changes in Merkel’s position due to international demands (France) and (very moderate and maybe after the next federal election) in preparation of another grand coalition 2013 – if this will be an option after the 2013 election. And of course Merkel is well-known for her flexibility, but right now – with a quite good economic situation in Germany – her position could be useful to mark difference towards SPDs position and to keep intra-party peace with the conservative wing of her party.

Christian SchweigerLecturer in Government, Department of Politics, Durham University

Elections in NRW are crucial for any federal government in Germany because this is the most populated region in Germany. Who governs NRW therefore matters, most of all because the region has six votes in Germany’s second chamber, the Bundesrat. NRW has traditionally been a region with strong support for the Social Democrats due to its history of coal mining and steel production, where the SPD was traditionally considered as the party which represents the rights of ordinary workers as opposed to factory owners and landlords.

When voters in NRW brought the period where SPD had governed the region for almost thirty years to an end in 2005 and made the CDU the strongest party in the regional parliament it was considered as a political earthquake and led to the decision of SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to call early elections which his red-green coalition did not win.

If the red-green coalition under the leadership of Hannelore Kraft (SPD) who currently governs NRW as a minority government manages to get a working majority on Sunday it will definitely be seen as another severe blow to Merkel’s government. This would be even more so if Merkel’s coalition partner, the FDP, remains below 5 per cent and consequently would no longer be represented in the NRW parliament. The FDP was kicked out of a number of regional parliaments recently and not being represented in NRW would be a political disaster for the party and certainly weaken its political influence on the federal level further. This is even more so the case because the leading candidate in the NRW elections for the FDP is Christian Lindner, former general secretary of the party on the federal level and considered to be a potential future leader of his party. The NRW elections are likely to end up as a disaster for the CDU and the FDP, mainly because of the dwindling support for CDU challenger Norbert Röttgen. Röttgen last week publicly stated that the NRW poll should be seen as a referendum on Merkel’s European policy, a position which was heavily criticised from within his own ranks. If the SPD and the Greens manage to gain a substantial majority on Sunday and the FDP is kicked out of the NRW parliament, it is not unlikely that Merkel might call an early election.

Will the CDU’s defeat in NRW somehow influence also Merkel’s approach towards Europe?

I think that this is basically a separate issue and Merkel’s Eurozone policy is most likely to change as a result of the pressure coming from the new French president Hollande to renegotiate the fiscal treaty.

On the other hand as it now looks as if we will have an SPD-led government coalition in Schleswig-Holstein (another region who voted last Sunday), a win for the SPD in NRW would strengthen the SPD in the Federal Chamber and would make it far more difficult to ratify the fiscal treaty, which still needs to be done.

Rüdiger WurzelReader,  Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Hull

The election is important for her for two main reasons. First, tensions within the CDU/CSU-FDP government coalition are likely to increase if the FDP fails to clear the 5% hurdle. Second, the CDU’s prime minister candidate is Norbert Rötgen who is a close ally of Merkel. Rötgen did not have a very good campaign during which he stated amongst others that the election will be also a test for Merkel’s EU/Euro policy. Merkel will not have been pleased about his comment because opinion polls clearly indicate that the Rötgen is unlikely to become North Rhine-Westphalia’s next prime minister. If the CDU does badly in the election then this is will damage mainly Rötgen rather than Merkel’s political standing. However, Rötgen is important for Merkel if she has to enter into a coalition with the Green party to be able to remain Chancellor after the next national election. Rötgen, who used to have very good connections with the Green party, is seen as favouring a government coalition with the Green party over a government coalition with the FDP.

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