North Rhine-Westphalia: Scholz is at stake in the crucial elections of the largest German state | International

Thomas Kutschaty (left), SPD candidate for the elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, accompanied by Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the closing campaign event in Cologne.
Thomas Kutschaty (left), SPD candidate for the elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, accompanied by Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the closing campaign event in Cologne.INA FASSBENDER (AFP)

North Rhine-Westphalia, the land Germany’s richest and most populous, emblematic of the rise and fall of its mighty coal and steel industry, goes to the polls this Sunday. They are regional elections and in that key the almost 13 million voters are going to vote —out of a total of 18 million inhabitants—, but what happens in this federated State will mark the next steps of national politics. Chancellor Olaf Scholz also has a lot at stake. A Social Democratic victory would reassert his leadership within five months of his inauguration. A defeat would be interpreted as a slap on the wrist for his handling of the Ukraine crisis.

The polls place the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats very evenly matched, but with a slight advantage of between three and four points for the second in these elections called “miniature federal elections”. The SPD is around 29% while the CDU reaches 32% according to the latest survey for the public network ZDF. North Rhine-Westphalia, home to one of the largest industrial concentrations in Europe on the banks of the Rhine and Ruhr rivers, has always been a left-wing state. The SPD ruled 45 of the 50 years before 2017, when Angela Merkel’s CDU took its biggest stronghold by surprise.

Recovering it has been one of the priorities of the chancellor, who has accompanied the Social Democratic candidate, Thomas Kutschaty, 53, in several campaign events despite the tightness of his international agenda. Scholz even poses on some election posters next to Kutschaty, something that is not customary in German politics. His implication has a double reading: if he wins the SPD, it will be because the candidate has support and a direct line with the chancellor; if he loses, it will be interpreted that he has been dragged down by Scholz’s low popularity due to his management during the war in Ukraine.

The SPD needs to recover from the painful defeat of 2017, but there is also a lot of pressure on the Christian Democrats, who are still licking their wounds after the general elections last September. The candidate they put forward, Armin Laschet, was the Minister President of North Rhine-Westphalia, and he had such a disastrous result that even in his land managed to overcome the socialists. The CDU now introduces Hendrik Wüst, 46, who took over from Laschet last fall. With little more than half a year at the head of the Rhenish Government, he has hardly had time to convince his fellow citizens of the benefits of his management. The “elections of the unknown candidates” have been dubbed by some commentators.

In Berlin, Düsseldorf — the state capital — is seen as the first great test of the coalition government that Scholz formed with the greens and the liberals. The response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, runaway inflation and the energy crisis that has been triggered by Germany’s effort to shake off dependence on Russian hydrocarbons will be on the minds of Rhenish voters.

The most important German elections of the year are going to be the thermometer in which to read if the prediction that Scholz made after winning last year – he spoke of forging “a social democratic decade” – is fulfilled. At the moment, the two regional elections already held this year have been tied. The SPD won in the Saarland in March, but last week suffered a blow in Schleswig-Holstein, where it posted its worst ever result and fell behind the Greens in third place.

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There Daniel Günther, a young value of the Christian Democrats, took advantage of his popularity to campaign practically alone without appealing to the acronym of the party. But the situation now is very different because the candidate is much less popular. That is why CDU President Friedrich Merz, who hails from the Rhineland, has emulated Scholz and has also been involved in campaign events. For the opposition leader it is a litmus test. He needs to reaffirm his leadership with a view to the long-distance race towards the next general elections, in 2025. Losing regional elections would detract points from his possible candidacy for chancellor.

Wüst currently governs in coalition with the liberals of the FDP, to whom the polls are giving a very modest result, around 7 or 8% of the vote. It is probable, therefore, that the minor partner for the next legislature will be the Greens, with double the intention to vote (16-17%), which also sends a message at the federal level. The environmentalist party is improving its results in all regional elections, in parallel to the approval ratings that its ministers are reaping in Berlin. Robert Habeck, Vice Chancellor and Minister of Economy and Climate, and Annalena Baerbock, Minister of Foreign Affairs, are according to the latest polls the most popular politicians in the country, above the chancellor. As happened with the general elections in September, the Greens will hold the key to the next government in the Rhineland.

As is often the case with German state elections, the campaign issues have mostly focused on day-to-day concerns. The CDU has promised more police, teachers and health personnel, to improve infrastructure so that all municipalities with more than 20,000 inhabitants have a good train or express bus connection and tax exemption for the installation of solar panels. The SPD has put the focus on jobs, affordable housing and education, insisting that the Rhineland must be climate neutral “but not de-industrialised”.

The closure of most of the coal mines in the 1980s left a trail of unemployment in the region and prompted a forced reconversion. Today the mining activity that made the Ruhr area prosperous has given way to other sectors, such as finance. If it were an independent country, this land It would be a world leader in exports, boasts the regional government on its official website. Thirty-seven of the 100 largest German companies are based in the Rhineland, including the pharmaceutical company Bayer, in Leverkusen, and Deutsche Telekom, in Bonn. The unemployment rate, however, is one of the highest in Germany, at 6.6%, when the country’s average is 5%.

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