It wasn’t supposed to be this close.
Julia Klöckner, a rising star of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party and tipped by some as a possible successor to the top post, had long looked like she would coast to her first governorship.
In Rhineland-Palatinate, a wealthy south-west German state that borders France and Belgium, Ms. Klöckner led the current officeholder by more than 10 points for a long time.
Then came the refugee crisis, a challenge that has torn at the very fabric of Ms. Merkel’s “Union” — the conservative alliance of Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
The political alliance has been sharply split between those that support Ms. Merkel’s open-door policy and a more conservative wing, led by Bavarian state governor and CSU party leader Horst Seehofer, who has demanded strict controls on the number of refugees allowed into the country.
Ms. Klöckner, a once-loyal representative of Ms. Merkel, has sought to take a middle path, one that it seems may now have backfired. In the state elections, she’s finding herself having to explain why she diverged from the chancellor's welcoming policy and presented her own “Plan A2” that would speed up deportations.
“There is no screenplay for this huge task,” she now says on the campaign trail, but prefers to talk about local state issues — improved education, more security, solid finances.
Polls ahead of Sunday’s crucial state elections in Rhineland-Palatinate for the first time predict a down-to-the-wire race between the two top candidates, Ms. Klöckner and the current state governor, Malu Dreyer of the left-leaning Social Democratic party.
Suddenly, everything seems open in the first duel between two women for the political leadership of a German state.
CDU challenger Ms. Klöckner led the current officeholder by more than 10 points for a long time. Then came the refugee crisis and never-ending controversy within the conservative alliance.
As votes are counted Sunday evening, strategists of Germany’s political parties will pay closest attention to results from the state capital of Mainz, where the election will likely be decided between Ms. Dreyer’s Social Democrats and Ms. Klöckner’s conservative Christian Democratic Union.
The refugee crisis has been the hot-button issue in these state elections, splitting parties and the electorate. The far-right Alternative for Germany party has risen in polls in opposition to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming stance on refugees.
The sharp divisions within Ms. Merkel’s CDU over the refugee challenge could actually end up costing the party a chance at three state governorships. In some cases, it is candidates from other left-leaning parties, who overtly support Ms. Merkel’s open-door policy, that stand to gain. In other cases, it is the right-wing AfD.
In Baden-Württemberg, another south-west German state, all signs point to victory by the popular state premier Winfried Kretschmann of the Green Party, who has openly backed Ms. Merkel.
But in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, the biggest challenge has come from the far right. The Alternative for Germany, a new party that has turned increasingly xenophobic over the past year, could become the second-largest party behind Ms. Merkel’s CDU. Reiner Haseloff is expected to retain the state chancellery for the Christian Democrats, likely in a grand coalition, but only barely.
Ms. Dreyer, meanwhile, is enjoying the new attention. The state premier of Rhineland-Palatinate had just arrived at a construction site in Ingelheim, where the Boehringer pharmaceutical company had donated land for an asylum-processing center,
Malu Dreyer was asked whether she would offer her challenger, Ms. Klöckner, a ministerial position. Ms. Dreyer pulled her red, down-filled coat tighter around her shoulders.
“Up to now, the question was always asked the other way around,” said the politician from Germany’s center-left Social Democratic Party. “It’s nice that there is this change.”
Upon closer look, it is actually a battle between three women, even if the deputy premier and economics minister from the Green Party, Eveline Lemke, is struggling. Her Green Party, which won almost 16 percent of the votes in 2011, is now expected to get only 7 percent. That will in no way be enough to continue the Red-Green coalition in Rhineland-Palatinate.
After a period of scandals and controversies, Ms. Klöckner has united Christian Democrats in Rhineland-Palatinate. Before she went to Mainz in 2011, she was a deputy minster for agriculture in the federal government. Since then, she has been attacking the SPD, sometimes harshly, sometimes gently.
The Social Democrats have been an easy target: The party has governed the state for a quarter century and left a mountain of debt. Bankruptcies hit the Zweibrücken Airport and Nürburgring auto racing track. The Schiersteiner Bridge, a heavily traveled span over the Rhine River, had to be closed for months last year to repair extensive structural damage.
The 43-year-old former regional wine queen has fought since February for every vote. She has traveled across the state by bus and walked through downtown areas. She enters stores and speaks cheerily with customers and salespeople, thrusting her electoral program into the hands of everyone who doesn’t flee within a few seconds.
“It’s time for a new beginning,” Ms. Klöckner has promised. Her calculation seemed to be paying off, until the refugee crisis split her party nationally.
At the construction site in Ingelheim, Malu Dreyer tried to talk with the refugees Mustafa and Ezat. The two Egyptians are going through the asylum process and participating in a company’s training program.
“Do you already speak German?” asked the state premier, with a translator’s help. Then Ms. Dreyer praised the local family entrepreneurs for their support of refugees, and urged the local SPD candidate: “Keep persevering, moving around.”
On this day, the 55-year-old Ms. Dreyer had support from Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s vice chancellor and SPD party head. “If political performance pays off, then Malu Dreyer will remain state premier,” he said.
Later he emphasized Ms. Dreyer’s popularity and her image of standing for cohesion in the state. “She is a uniter,” said Mr. Gabriel.
Even if the refugee crisis may have provided a boost in some cases, the Social Democrats remain on wobbly footing. The party cuts a significantly better figure in Rhineland-Palatinate than on the national level.
It has been three years since Ms. Dreyer took over the premiership of the Red-Green state government from Kurt Beck, inheriting age-old problems in the process.
But after Ms. Klöckner’s aggressive refugee plan and their television duel, the two women politicians are running neck-and-neck.
“Ms. Dreyer has good nerves and can endure weak phases,” said an adviser. “We were happy to be handed Plan A2.”
Ms. Klöckner, by contrast, has been the one who struggles to tow a middle line. And at one event, she even let the controversial head of the Christian Social Union, Horst Seehofer, campaign for her.
Mr. Seehofer is a fierce critic of the chancellor’s refugee policies. His Bavaria was hailed as a role model by Ms. Klöckner. “Bavaria is the state with laptop and leather trousers,” she said. “We can become that as well with brains and bravura.”
While Ms. Dreyer is popular in the state, Ms. Klöckner is also still well-received by people, sometimes as if she were a pop star. She is often asked for autographs and some female fans even call out “I love you!”
The CDU party has made sure there is a festive atmosphere at her campaign events, with orange balloons, an oversized red carpet and everywhere high, round tables with CDU umbrellas.
When one event ended, Ms. Klöckner returned with a pen to the tour bus. She crossed through one more in a long list of tour stops – in a electoral campaign that is costing the CDU about €1 million.
The populist Alternative for Germany also weighs on the race here. Ms. Dreyer earlier refused to participate in a television debate if it included the AfD along with all other parties.
“We must not give far-right extremists and populists a forum,” the state premier said. “I am adamant about this.”
Ms. Klöckner was ready to participate, however, because she is looking to garner every vote she can.
Heike Anger is an editor for economics and politics, Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines and Barbara Gillmann covers politics, education, social policy and the Greens. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected]