The State Election in North Rhine-Westphalia

May 12, 2010

On May 12, 2010, AGI held a roundtable discussion on “The State Election in North Rhine-Westphalia: A Bellwether for Berlin?” The discussion, supported by AGI’s Foreign & Domestic Policy Program, was moderated by Jackson Janes (Executive Director, AGI) with panelists Dorothea von Trotha (German Public Television ZDF), Linda Ludwig and Arne Jungjohann (Washington, DC, chapter of the Bündnis 90/ Green Party), and Elmar Sulk and Martin Kleiber (Circle of Friends of the CDU in Washington, DC).

The participants analyzed the outcome of the May 9 state election in Germany’s most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) and commented on what the poll results mean for the current CDU/CSU and FDP federal coalition in Berlin. Even though most panelists agreed on several explanations for the election outcome, the participants held different views on the consequences of the election for federal politics in Berlin.

Dorothea von Trotha discussed the election’s outcome and remarked that there are several coalition options for a new government in NRW. Ms. von Trotha also noted the factors behind the election results: First, there is a new tendency for the big parties to lose votes, especially among voters under 50 who favor smaller parties such as the Green Party or the Liberal Party (FDP). Thus, the “Volksparteien” (catch-all parties) – the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Christian Democrats (CDU) – suffered one of the worst results ever while the Green Party and the FDP were able to attract young and well educated voters. Second, voters favored the Green Party’s campaign issues: (1) The economic situation, (2) education policy, and (3) discussions about the deficit. Additionally, about 30 percent of the voters made up their minds during the last few days before the election, which is rather unusual.

NRW is the most populous state in Germany, and therefore the election will have a huge impact on Berlin. With the loss of the majority in the Bundesrat, it may be necessary to make changes to personnel or for the governing CDU-CSU-FDP coalition to make concessions in its political program. Regarding Germany’s international leadership capability, Ms. von Trotha stated that Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle’s diminished political power domestically will translate into diminished influence internationally.

According to Martin Kleiber, current developments in Berlin, Brussels, and Athens played an important role in the NRW state election, although it was not primarily a protest against Berlin’s policies during the last year. Rather, the NRW state election was influenced by a mix of state issues and federal issues, including Minister-President Jürgen Rüttgers’s (CDU) donation scandal and Foreign Minister Westerwelle’s statements concerning social policy and the Hartz IV reforms. Furthermore, voters lack faith in Merkel’s crisis management policy regarding the latest financial crisis in Greece.

Mr. Kleiber claimed that all parties represented in the new Dusseldorf parliament have moved to the left, with the exception of the Left Party. The implications of this are still unclear. Furthermore, the Green Party has traditionally attracted voters not only thanks to its party platform focusing on environmental issues, but also those who are, for whatever reason, unhappy with the current state-of-play in Germany and are looking for an outlet in the party spectrum to voice their frustrations.. Thus, Mr. Kleiber raised the question of what will happen to the Green Party if they now become part of the governing coalition in NRW and whether the voters’ swing towards the Greens could come to an end.

Turning to the outgoing governing coalition, Linda Ludwig discussed different factors impacting the Black-Yellow (CDU-FDP) failure in NRW. First, the government failed to convincingly attract its population with its choice of campaign topics and with its performance. Even though Ms. Ludwig concurred with Mr. Kleiber that Minister-President Rüttgers and the donation scandal had some influence on the election, she is convinced that this was not the main reason for the CDU’s poor performance. Rather, the absence of important issues and the government’s reaction to the Greece crisis disappointed the voters.

According to Ms. Ludwig, the successful outcome for the Green Party was largely due to its ability to connect with the issues important to voters: Energy politics, the connection between energy politics and economic policy, the Euro crisis, and local fiscal policy. The Green Party criticized the behavior of the local government and tried to improve people’s living conditions. Additionally, the Green Party chose relevant topics at the federal level, which included questions concerning atomic energy and economic development. Third, the Green Party is open to almost any coalition, dependent only on the issues. This same focus on the issues allowed the Green Party to be the only party that gained from the other parties’ losses and that was able to mobilize former non-voters. Finally, the development of a new party system in Germany is an important aspect of the Green Party’s success. The enlargement to a six-party system makes traditional coalitions less likely to occur and opens the possibility for many new coalition options. However, even if a Red-Green coalition is less likely in the future, it is still an option.

Elmar Sulk stressed the growing need of a third party to build a government, often with an unconventional coalition, such as the “traffic-light coalition” (SPD/
FDP/Greens) or the “Jamaica coalition” (CDU/FDP/Greens), both of which are undesirable coalitions for the CDU. Such coalitions are increasingly likely with the transition of the party system and voters’ more fluid electoral behavior. Both changes will have a strong influence on the CDU/CSU/FDP government in Berlin; having lost the majority in the Bundesrat, Merkel’s governing style will have to change as she is forced to cooperate more with the opposition parties and compromise on bills if she wants to have them pass.

The final speaker turned to the role of the FDP in elections. Arne Jungjohann pointed out the FDP’s remarkable success at the state level during the last decade, acting as a “king-maker” in forming governing coalitions with the CDU or SPD. Now, however, the FDP was hurt in the election by the financial crisis because its tax reduction policy contradicts the necessary steps taken by the government in the wake of the crisis. In Mr. Jungjohann’s opinion, the FDP was given a lesson in the election and should rethink both their personnel and their policies (notably their tax policy), if they want to be a viable coalition partner.

The outcome for the FDP – and the party’s response – also has consequences on the federal level. The Merkel government’s strategy of waiting until after the NRW election before passing several laws is no longer possible. There are two conflicting issues for Merkel: First, the SPD’s influence will increase, causing Merkel to return to her former governing style (grand coalition). Second, tensions between the different parties will rise in Berlin. Thus, the pressure on Merkel will increase, but how that will influence the political climate before the next federal election cannot yet be said.

The following discussion raised many questions, including the voting behavior of German Turks in Germany, the reputation of Foreign Minister Westerwelle, and further possible implications of the NRW elections for Berlin. Also discussed was the financial situation of some local governments (or cities) that are facing insolvency and the issue of a lack of enthusiasm for the parties (Parteiverdrossenheit), which is especially noticeable in Germany’s middle class. Concerning Merkel’s governing style, participants applauded her pragmatic way of negotiation; however, Merkel will be hampered from performing well at the European level in the near future because of strong feelings about Germany’s national interest among the populace. Of immediate concern is the need to make clear to the whole country that it is in Germany’s interest to solve the crisis in Greece, not “against,” but in cooperation with Greece.

Overall, the discussion showed a dark picture for federal politics in Berlin. The panelists agreed that the election results created major problems for Merkel to govern on the domestic and international levels. The panelists explained that there are new trends arising concerning voting behavior and the transition of the party system in Germany. However, it was also agreed that those changes and the emerging problems will definitely not lead to a failing of German domestic and international politics in general.