North Rhine-Westphalia: barometer of federal German politics?

Since a mid-March budget standoff when the current government failed to pass its budget by one vote, North Rhine-Westphalia has been (rather unexpectedly) poised to hold early elections on May 13.

This is no small matter, as NRW is the largest state in Germany — with almost 18 million people, it comprises nearly one-fourth of Germany’s population, exceeding the populations of both Bavaria of the former East Germany.  During the post-war period, it was the heart of the Land von Kohle und Stahl (the ‘land of steel and coal’) — today it remains an industrial powerhouse within Germany, even if it has otherwise diversified economically as well.

NRW lacks both the socially conservative political tilt of Bavaria and the heavily socialist/leftist political of the eastern German states, so given its status as the largest German state, it is something of a traditional bellwether for federal elections, which are due in 2013. 

For instance:

  • The 1966 victory of Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (the Social Democratic Party) leader Heinz Kühn and subsequent SPD-led governing coalition with the economically liberal Freie Demokratische Partei (Free Democrats) foreshadowed a similar coalition at the federal level under Willy Brandt.
  • The 1995 SPD-led coalition with Die Grünen (the Green Party) headed by Johannes Rau similarly foreshadowed the coalition between Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the SPD and foreign minister Joschka Fischer of the Greens.
  • In May 2005, the Christlich Demokratische Union (Christian Democratic Union) swept into power in North Rhine-Westphalia, giving momentum to the sense that Angela Merkel would sweep Schröder and the SDP out of power federally.

In the most recent 2010 election, the CDU and the SPD essentially tied with about 34.5% of the vote each and 67 seats each in the state parliament, the Landtag. The Greens finished third, with 12%, more than doubling their number of seats to 23, while the FDP held steady with just 13 seats. Die Linke (the Left Party) took 11 seats, entering the Landtag for the first time. 

Accordingly, the SPD-Green coalition precariously held just 90 of the 181 seats in the current Landtag, leading to the one-vote loss in March’s budget vote and early elections.

This time around, though, the SPD-Green coalition headed by Hannelore Kraft seems increasingly poised for a clear victory – the SPD leads with around 40% to the CDU’s 32% (with a healthy 12% for the SPD’s coalition partner, the Greens), and Kraft remains much more widely popular than the CDU’s Norbert Röttgen. 

At the same time, the CDU holds a small, but steady, lead over the SPD in national polls. 

Normally, Merkel might have been seen to be a ‘lame duck’ chancellor following a CDU defeat on May 13, but the NRW result seems increasingly irrelevant to federal political developments — so the expected SPD victory will cause little turbulence for Merkel as she continues to focus on Europe prior to federal elections next year.

While the NRW election may be irrelevant for the CDU, the SPD and even the Greens, however, it will be a vital test for both of the Free Democrats and the Pirates in advance of the next federal election.

At the NRW level, each of the Left and the Free Democrats both sink below the key 5% margin in current polls – 5% is the level of support necessary to take seats in the Landtag under the proportional representation rules for state legislative elections. 

Ironically, the Free Democrats were the immediate cause of the early elections — they had been expected to abstain from the March budget vote, but voted against it at the last moment; the hastened election may now sweep them out of the state parliament entirely.  Their collapse at the state level mirrors a similar drop in support federally — indeed, the Free Democrats were wiped out in the recent Saarland state elections, lost all of their seats in the September 2011 Berlin state elections, and are polling abysmally in advance of the May 6 state election in Schleswig-Holstein.

Meanwhile, the newly formed libertarian / downright quirky Pirate Party is polling 5% in NRW and, federally, well into double digits.  The Financial Times‘s Christopher Caldwell attempts to explain the appeal:

At first glance the Pirates seem to have replaced the usual party platform with a series of stunts. They want to remove the “gender” tick-box from official forms. They allow dual membership in parties. They call for “liquid democracy”, which is just a pretentious way of describing their system of consulting party members online. What their party members most seem to want is freebies: free public transport, computer courses, library resources and high-speed internet.

But at a time when the CDU and the SPD — Germany’s two largest parties — are both seen as pro-Europe at a time when German voters are fatigued with its leaders bailing out the rest of Europe, with the Greens even more pro-Europe, and with the Free Democrats joining the CDU in the federal governing coalition, it should come as no surprise that a vague group like the Pirates should emerge with, currently, the third-highest support in the country

It’s no more surprising, at least, than the emergence of the right-wing ‘tea party’ movement and the leftist ’99%’ and ‘Occupy’ movements in the United States or the popularity of the stridently anti-austerity Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France’s presidential election.  In the same Berlin election that saw the Free Democrats wiped out, the Pirates won 15 seats.

It remains somewhat skeptical that the Pirates will float through a federal election — or even the NRW election — without providing much more specificity about their political program.  This will be especially true — if the Pirates repeat their Berlin stunt by winning seats in Germany’s largest state (and the Free Democrats and the Left Party lose all of theirs), the Pirates’s additional momentum will be matched by an ever more intense wave of scrutiny.

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