North Rhine-Westphalia's parliamentary election on May 14 will be an important litmus test for the popularity of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her conservative CDU party. How Germany’s most populous state votes is considered a bellwether for the national elections in September.
No wonder the major parties all upped their campaign game over the weekend. Ms. Merkel and her rival, the Social Democrats’ (SPD) Martin Schulz, joined their parties’ regional campaigns – and took aim at each other.
Ms. Merkel won solid applause at the CDU party convention in Münster, about 100 kilometers north of the state capital Düsseldorf, on Saturday. But her reception was nothing compared to the euphoria Mr. Schulz elicits from Social Democrats these days.
Ms. Merkel joined Armin Laschet, her party’s regional leader in North Rhine-Westphalia, to shore up much needed support six weeks before the regional election. Recent surveys show the conservatives stagnating at 30 percent, while current state premier Hannelore Kraft of the SPD, leads by 7 points.
The chancellor has a total of eight campaign appearances on her schedule over the coming weeks.
For the Social Democrats, the regional ballot is the most important leg of this year’s campaign marathon, too. With Mr. Schulz, the charismatic and widely popular new face of the party, the SPD has its first chance in many years of ousting long-term Chancellor Ms. Merkel and leading the federal government.
But the main obstacle on Mr. Schulz's path to the chancellery is the question of a coalition partner.
Ms. Merkel now wants to polarize. Ulrich von Alemann, political scientist, Heinrich Heine University, Duesseldorf
Recent elections in the southwestern state of Saarland made it clear that, faced with a coalition of Social Democrats and the Left Party, most voters prefer the conservatives. The CDU was able to mobilize tens of thousands of voters just ahead of the poll after the SPD announced its intention to govern together with the leftists, despite Mr. Schulz’ popularity.
On Friday, former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder made his party's coalition problem even more pressing. In an interview with Der Spiegel news magazine he said an alliance between the Social Democrats and the Green Party and leftists wasn't realistic as long as “the Lafontaine family leads the Left Party.” Oskar Lafontaine, a former SPD minister under Mr. Schröder’s government, defected in 2005 and spearheaded the Left Party for five years. His wife, Sarah Wagenknecht, currently co-chairs the Left Party faction in the Bundestag, the German lower house.
The current SPD leadership is divided over partnering with the leftists. A coalition with the left-leaning Greens and the Left Party was long considered the only chance to wrest government from the CDU.
“Except for with right-wing parties, coalitions with all democratic parties are desirable to differing extents but generally possible,” Ralf Stegner, deputy SPD chairman, said in response to Mr. Schröder’s interview.
Mr. Stegner added that coalitions aren’t on the ballot paper and it doesn’t make sense for the Social Democrats to advocate a specific alliance ahead of the elections, which would only indirectly advertise other parties.
After the Saarland fiasco, however, party leaders are also exploring the option of a coalition with the Greens and the liberal FDP party, should the liberals make it back into parliament in fall.
FDP chairman Christian Lindner already ruled out such a coalition in North Rhine-Westphalia, where the party currently holds 9 percent of seats. But he hasn't commented on the prospect of governing with the Social Democrats and Greens in national parliament.
Ms. Merkel, meanwhile, used her speech on Saturday to attack Mr. Schulz and his trademark appeals to justice. She said the SPD is pursuing an outdated idea of justice, and that the party was generally too focused on the past. “They’re talking about justice but forget that justice without innovation is impossible,” she said.
Her appearance this weekend suggests the gloves are off for the rest of the campaign. Political scientist Ulrich von Alemann said Ms. Merkel has likely realized her previous strategy, one of “lulling, distracting, personalizing,” doesn’t work against Mr. Schulz.
“Ms. Merkel now wants to polarize,” Mr. von Alemann said. She continues to praise controversial social security reforms that former SPD chancellor Mr. Schröder pushed through, which are wildly unpopular among the Social Democrats' base. Mr. Schulz is trying to gain votes by rejecting the reforms.
On Sunday, Mr. Schulz used his own campaign appearance to rebuff Ms. Merkel’s remarks.
At an old coal mine, symbolic of North Rhine-Westphalia's industrial history, the SPD addressed the party base. State governor Ms. Kraft and Mr. Schulz came on stage to “I’ve got the power” blasting from the speakers and a standing ovation of several minutes. The entire party ranks were present, from Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel to Hamburg’s state governor, Olaf Scholz, and Malu Dreyer, state governor of Rhineland-Palatinate.
“The question of justice is an important one,” Mr. Schulz said, in response to Ms. Merkel’s criticism. “Justice has been the core of our party for 154 years.” And, in an even more direct rebuff, he said, “The terms innovation and justice were also associated with replacing Helmut Kohl as chancellor in 1998. That’s why they sound particularly good to us.”
Ms. Kraft said the CDU used its convention to malign the Social Democrats without offering concrete policies. She accused the the conservatives of flip-flopping on important issues, such as college fees, a minister for digitization and hiring more police. “Such a wobbly crew can’t govern our country,” she said.
She also defended her own track record in North Rhine-Westphalia. Ms. Merkel criticized the state’s low public investment rate on Saturday. Ms. Kraft said it was her CDU predecessor, Jürgen Rüttgers, who cut €3.5 billion in investment from municipalities. From 138 municipalities on emergency budget support under Mr. Rüttgers, only nine were today, she added.
Just a couple of months ago, the Social Democrats and conservatives were neck and neck. Then Mr. Schulz entered the scene, and the SPD shot up in the polls. Analyst Mr. von Alemann cautioned against projecting results from North Rhine-Westphalia to the federal setting. But he admitted a win for Ms. Kraft “would be a definite burden for Ms. Merkel’s campaign.”
The analyst said he doesn't expect the CDU’s Mr. Laschet to beat incumbent state premier Ms. Kraft. In many voters' eyes, Mr. Laschet is too similar to the chancellor, Mr. von Alemann said. While Mr. Laschet and Ms. Merkel are considered “pragmatic, accommodating and of calm mind,” Mr. von Alemann said Ms. Kraft and Mr. Schulz are seen as “approachable, human and emotional.”
Kathrin Witsch is an editor for Handelsblatt in Düsseldorf. Christian Wermke is an editor for Handelsblatt Live, covering politics, corporate executives and lifestyle. Dietmar Neuerer covers domestic politics for Handelsblatt from Berlin. To contact the authors: [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]