Triumph for Angela Merkel in Germany’s most populous state

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EARLY last month, Martin Schulz addressed a rally of his Social Democratic Party (SPD) at the Zollverein, a coal-mining complex in the Ruhr Valley in western Germany. To this pumped-up crowd in the party’s industrial heartland he proclaimed that if the SPD won the state election here in North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), it would go on to win Germany’s general election in September and he would replace Angela Merkel as chancellor.

All of which made things tricky for him on the evening of May 14th, as the SPD’s disastrous performance at that election unfolded. The latest projection has the party down 8 percentage points to 31.1% and Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) up 7.2 points to 33.6%. And this in Mr Schulz’s home state, where he had spent weeks campaigning. After his ill-advised boast at the Zollverein, he could hardly claim the result had nothing to do with the national picture. “I’m no magician,” he admitted ashen-faced at the SPD’s subdued election-night party. It was a grim moment for the former European Parliament president and wannabe chancellor. But how grim, precisely?

To be sure, there were major local factors. Germany’s state governments are responsible for everything from schools and motorways to crime and some welfare provision. The government in NRW, the country’s most populous state at 18m, is more powerful than most. Its elections are much more than proxy polls on national politics. For example NRW swung strongly to the SPD in 2012, a year before it resoundingly backed Mrs Merkel in the last federal election.

And the state has a poor record: the highest unemployment outsider the former-communist east, the most burglaries in Germany, chronic traffic congestion, high indebtedness and sub-par educational performance. It was here that the police failed to protect the hundreds of women sexually assaulted outside Cologne Cathedral on New Year’s Eve 2015 and that Anis Amri, the Berlin truck attacker, slipped through gaps in the asylum system.

Moreover the cliché about NRW, that it is an SPD stronghold, is not entirely fair on Mr Schulz. It has been run by the party for 45 of the past 50 years, but experienced long periods of CDU rule before then. The proletarian Ruhr is not the whole state: small-town, protestant Westphalia in its north and east and the catholic bourgeoisie of prosperous Rhenish cities to the south (Düsseldorf, Cologne, Bonn) provide a solid CDU base. This base is growing as heavy industry declines and the likes of biotech, logistics and telecoms take its place.

Nonetheless the result was worse for the SPD than most polls had predicted. Hannelore Kraft, the prime minister of NRW and vice-chair of the SPD, resigned within minutes. It came as the SPD’s national poll numbers were tanking and following two other state elections in which it did unexpectedly badly: in Saarland and, last Sunday, in Schleswig-Holstein. The latter was the first state election at which the CDU had gained power since Mrs Merkel became chancellor in 2005. NRW will now become the second. The “Schulz effect”, the surge in support for the SPD when Mr Schulz emerged as its chancellor candidate in January, is officially dead. It is an ex-effect.

Most worrying of all for the SPD is that the NRW campaign tested several of the precepts on which Mr Schulz’s national strategy is based. The party tried to turn the vote there into a straightforward referendum on social justice, as it plans to do in the federal election in September. “Time for more fairness” read posters; “NRWir” (NRWe) was another slogan; schools and childcare overshadowed other themes. Like nationally, its most eye-catching pledge was fee-free education from nursery to university. Like nationally, it declined to rule out coalitions with the socialist Die Linke party (until just three days ago, when it u-turned in a panic). Like nationally, Mr Schulz toured around giving rousing and well-executed speeches railing against fat cats, telling affecting anecdotes about the tough lot of the little man and promising to make welfare more generous. If this was going to work anywhere, it would surely work in NRW, with its relatively high unemployment rate and large blue-collar electorate. It did not. The latest projection has the SPD winning just 37% of working-class votes there.

Meanwhile the CDU was testing its own national strategy. Armin Laschet (pictured above, right), its lead candidate who will now become the prime minister, exuberantly decried the crime statistics and the state’s failings in the Amri case. Angela Merkel visited NRW eight times and joined in the chorus, laying into the SPD over the Cologne assaults in her final appearances on the campaign trail. The party’s whole campaign was designed to draw a clear line between order under the CDU and disorder under the SPD, with Mrs Merkel as the embodiment of that difference. Some centrist policies on public services here, some tough talk on crime and identity there; and, encompassing it all, the figure of a chancellor who after 12 years remains remarkably well respected (the latest projection also shows Mrs Merkel as more popular in NRW than Mr Schulz, Mr Laschet or Ms Kraft). It worked in NRW. Now the CDU will apply a very similar recipe at the federal level.

Other factors also reflected the national picture. The Greens struggled to define themselves and leaked support to the right and left, as they are doing across Germany. The free-market FDP’s modest national recovery under the energetic Christian Lindner was reflected in NRW, where the party leader had put his credibility on the line by running as his own lead candidate. The far-right Alternative for Germany ran a chaotic campaign but cleared the 5% hurdle needed to enter parliament, as it will probably do in the general election. 

In more ways than one this was a dry run for the general election. Education went up against law-and-order. Thrusting social reformism went up against technocratic stability. Mrs Merkel went up against Mr Schulz. The outcome is unequivocal and its significance for national politics is hard to dispute, despite local factors. It is time, perhaps, to talk once more about the “Merkel effect”.

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