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Carsten Brzeski's blog

Germany: General repetition

After two smaller state elections this year, Sunday’s election in North Rhine Westphalia will be the real barometer and general repetition for the national elections in September.

Around one-fifth of the entire German electorate will go to the ballots on Sunday. North Rhine Westphalia is the state with the highest population. Even though state elections are not always a simple beauty contest for national politics and are often decided by regional factors, some four months ahead of the federal elections, the Sunday vote will be more than only symbolic. After the Schulz-hype in February and March, which catapulted the Social-Democrats (SPD) and its new front-runner, Martin Schulz, head-to-head with Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats (CDU) in national opinion polls, the SPD has again lost some ground recently.

Some observers have called Sunday’s election a test case for the country’s appetite for political change. Technically speaking, this is not correct as the current state government in North Rhine Westphalia actually consists of the SPD and the Greens and not the same parties as the federal government. Still, the elections will be the first real barometer of the political mood this year.

Economically, North Rhine Westphalia is not a spitting image or representative for the entire country. The state has lost its role as economic engine a long time ago and has been one of the slowest-growing states in Germany over the last years. At 7.5%, the unemployment rate is clearly above the national rate and broadly at the same level as the unemployment rate in Eastern Germany. Therefore, economic factors affecting the electorate choice could differ between the state and the national level. Given the relative high rate of unemployment, however, the elections will give some information if the SPD’s national platform for more social justice can win votes. If not here, how could this economic platform ever be successful at the national level, some might argue.

With the caveats that state elections are not the same as federal elections and that still a lot can happen between now and the September elections, political observers will and should watch out for elements of Sunday’s results that could be of a symbolic or even foreboding value for the federal elections. Here are some details that in our view are important:

  • The Social-Democrats are traditionally strong in North Rhine Westphalia. At the last elections in 2012, they gained 39% of the vote. Any changes to the 2012 result will be closely linked to Martin Schulz, both gains and losses.
  • For Merkel’s Christian Democrats the situation is much easier. As their 2012 result (26.3%) was weaker than the CDU’s federal results, the upside looks clearly bigger than the downside.
  • Which platform can win elections? The CDU has recently returned to a law-and-order approach, putting security on top of its political agenda, while the SPD is pushing the topic of social justice.
  • Will the AfD make it into parliament? Since its official foundation, the party has made it into 12 state parliaments. On a declining trend in national opinion polls, entering a 13th parliament could give the party tailwinds for September.
  • What about the Liberals? Voted out of national parliament at the last elections, the liberal party is fighting to return to center stage of national politics. For party leader, Christian Lindner, the elections in North Rhine Westphalia are not only a home match but the crucial test for the party.