Scholz to face major litmus test in elections of largest German state

The race between the “election of the unknown candidates” in North Rhine-Westphalia could have large ramifications on Chancellor Olaf Scholz's forthcoming term. [EPA-EFE/FRIEDEMANN VOGEL]

Voters in the largest German state, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), will head to the polls on Sunday (15 May). The results in the 17 million inhabitant state will be the first time that Chancellor Olaf Scholz is being judged by voters.

Often termed a miniature federal election, NRW’s election tends to be an important mood check. Once, a defeat in the state capital Düsseldorf rung in the fall of long-time conservative chancellor Helmut Kohl. Scholz is wary of facing a similar fate.

The polls are predicting a tight race. The latest figures are 32% for minister-president Hendrik Wüst’s CDU, and 28% to 29% for Thomas Kutschaty’s SPD. 

While Wüst is the successor to the unfortunate Armin Laschet, who failed his bid to become chancellor, and thus hasn’t been in office for long, Kutschaty is largely unknown. The race has thus been termed the “election of the unknown candidates.”

Wüst is counting on his multiple months at the helm of the state as minister-president, which has given him a large of exposure and recognition, while Kutschaty is counting on the support of one man: Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Kutschaty and Scholz are pictured side-by-side on election posters and Scholz spent the social democrat’s most important day, Labour Day, alongside Kutschaty to make one thing painfully obvious: elect Kutschaty if you want a man with a direct line to the chancellor in Berlin.

But the closer the ties between Kutschaty and Scholz, the greater the feedback effect between them. Scholz’s unpopular wobbles during the war in Ukraine are liable to affect Kutschaty’s numbers, and should Kutschaty fail to win the election, Scholz will be seriously weakened.

For years, NRW was the social democrat’s heartland, losing it to the conservative CDU in 2017 was a big blow. It would be a great tailwind for the SPD should it retake its former heartland. But it would be just as big a blow to Scholz should the SPD fail the attempt.

The week before, the SPD had suffered a crushing defeat in the Northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. Then, it could say that it had been down to the personalities in the race. Now, with Scholz putting his full weight behind his party candidate, he will have no such excuse.

Already, Kutschaty has sought to put contingency plans in place, putting out subtle feelers about forming a coalition government in the “traffic light” style of the federal government even should he lose.

One man will be the second-biggest winner, should Wüst win: CDU party chief, and long-time Angela Merkel rival, Friedrich Merz, who has retaken the party by storm following the retreat of his erstwhile competitor for party leadership.

Pressure on Lindner’s liberals

Similarly, the business-friendly liberal FDP is facing an abyss. Polling as low as 6% in the latest polls, the party of Finance Minister Christian Lindner is facing a drop below the 5% cut-off in the minister’s home state. For Lindner, the sole hegemon of his party, dropping out of NRW’s state parliament would be a harsh defeat.

His party stands to lose around half of the votes it has received in 2017, going from 12.6% to 6%, which would put an ugly crack in Lindner’s claim to ruling his party.

Already, the FDP has rallied support in NRW by inviting the European Commissioner for competition, Margrethe Vestager, to a G7 digital minister’s summit in Düsseldorf in a desperate bid to show off their famous European party colleague.

Additionally, the FDP could be currying favour with its erstwhile coalition partners, the CDU, who might be looking for a new partner to govern with, should they win.

The comfortable Greens

The Greens appear to be the only party that is really comfortable in the NRW election, as they benefit greatly from the nationwide popularity of their ministers in government. 17% of voters would vote Green, a poll from 12 May showed. 

At the last election in 2017, they had received a mere 6.2% of the vote. Now, with the green superstars in the federal government considered the most popular politicians in all of Germany, the Greens may be able to almost double their share of the vote.

Thus, the Greens have become the kingmaker in this round of elections in NRW, as a government likely won’t be formed without them given their likely dominant victory at the polls.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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