Election results: North-Rhine Westphalia

Results are in from North-Rhine Westphalia, and the vote went as expected: a resounding victory for the current coalition government: the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (the Social Democratic Party) and Die Grünen (the Green Party) both improved on their current representation in the Landtag, the parliament of Germany’s largest state.

The SPD now holds 99 seats (an increase of 32) and the Greens hold 29 seats (an increase of six), giving NRW premier Hannelore Kraft’s government a commanding majority in the Landtag.

The Christlich Demokratische Union (Christian Democratic Union) finished a poor second with just 67 seats, while the Freie Demokratische Partei (Free Democrats) will not only remain in the Landtag, but will hold 22 seats, an increase of nine.  Finally, the Piratenpartei Deutscheland (Pirate Party) will enter its fourth state parliament with 20 seats.  Die Linke (the Left Party) won 2.5%, below the 5% of support required to win seats under the proportional representation election system in NRW.

On Friday, I had set forth four key questions for the NRW — and we now have the answers:

Will the SPD win enough seats to form an outright majority? The answer is no, but that shouldn’t take anything away from the scope of the victory here for the SPD and for Kraft.

With 99 seats, the SPD fell just short of the 119 seats it would have needed to form a majority by itself.  Nonetheless, with its coalition partner, the Greens, the governing coalition will return to the Landtag as a true majority — it had formed a minority government after the previous 2010 election.  This is in every way a victory for the SPD’s Kraft, who will now take her place in the top tier of German’s center-left politicians; her more gentle approach to budgetary matters is a pitch-perfect contrast against more aggressive budget cuts advocated by chancellor Angela Merkel:

Hannelore Kraft has one thing that her party rivals do not: She has clearly won an election. This distinguishes her from the current crop of party bigwigs: Peer Steinbrück, the rhetorically brilliant financial expert, and Frank-Walter Steinmaier, who is indeed popular, but who lacks the fire for the top job. And Kraft’s easygoing ability to curry favor with people is her trump card over Sigmar Gabriel, the party leader, whom many consider vain and therefore not capable of gaining a majority. The old adage still applies: If North Rhine-Westphalia, coughs, Berlin catches the flu.

As the SPD looks to a federal election in 2010, the two frontrunners remain Steinbrück, a former NRW premier and former German finance minister or Steinmeier, a former German foreign minister and current leader of the opposition.  But Kraft, who has a warm reputation for authenticity and sincerity, and who is not tainted by participating in the ‘grand coalition’ government of 2005 to 2009 with Merkel, will certainly have a higher profile role as the next federal campaign emerges.  She has said she is not interested in running for chancellor, but Sunday’s result will put more pressure on her to reconsider, especially if the somewhat dour duo of Steinbrück and Steinmeier remain less than inspiring alternatives to Merkel:

[The] party’s real star is now a woman: Hannelore Kraft has shown the three men how to win an election. She is more popular within the party than all three aspiring chancellors.

How will the CDU’s result affect Röttgen?  Norbert Röttgen will likely return to federal politics, as expected — he is currently Merkel’s environmental minister and the federal deputy of the CDU.  Although the CDU’s campaign was always a longshot, a narrow loss would not have hurt Röttgen.  But his campaign was widely seen as incompetent; by allowing the CDU to fall well below 30%, he has allowed the SPD to crow that the loss has federal implications for Merkel, and that the vote represents support for the SPD’s softer approach to budget cuts, which will be embarrassing for Merkel at a time when the Europe-wide consensus for austerity appears to be crumbling in light of stalled GDP growth, rising unemployment and the election of an anti-austerity president in France and support for anti-austerity parties in Greece’s recent election.

Merkel, who remains popular federally, will likely survive, but Röttgen, who has stepped down as NRW party leader, might not:

He was considered a potential successor to Angela Merkel. To prepare himself for this, Röttgen wanted to use NRW as his power base. That plan has gone spectacularly wrong. Röttgen resigned from the state chairmanship of the CDU on election night and is now returning to Berlin, badly damaged. In the national capital, he has quite a few enemies within the party and critics of his work, especially when it comes to the policy reversal on nuclear power. Röttgen has faced strong international criticism for failing to show clear leadership on the issue. With the predictable defeat in NRW, he is now also severely weakened as a politician of national stature.

Will the FDP be swept out of the Landtag? Emphatically not. Even though the FDP engineered the fall of the prior government in March over a budget vote, the FDP actually increased its vote, after a year in which its federal polling numbers and local election results have been disastrous.  NRW leader Christian Lindner will now be seen as the likely successor to the FDP’s federal party chairman, Phillip Rösler.

How well will the Pirate Party do? The pro-transparancy Pirate Party will enter the Landtag with 20 seats — although it finished fifth behind the Greens and the FDP, its 20 seats compares will with the Greens’ 29 seats and the FDP’s 22 seats.  Its entry into the parliament of Germany’s largest state is a symbolic moment for the fledgling party — it will now certainly be a force to be taken seriously at the federal level through 2013, but it will also need to define its platform more fully beyond its vague support for more transparency and its status as a pure protest vote.