BERLIN — Germany’s most populous state went to the polls on Sunday, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats scoring a record low in a regional election overshadowed by the war in Ukraine.
The race only concerns the legislative seat of North Rhine-Westphalia. But as the start of the campaign coincided with a Russian invasion, the race was unusually dominated by national issues — notably the risk of a possible spread of land war in Europe and concerns over energy supplies.
Mr Scholz has been increasingly criticised for his indecision over the way he supported Ukraine in the war, which has become a popular cause for several parties in Germany, which appear to be paying the price in their first major electoral test since then took power less than six months ago.
Predictions point to a victory for the incumbent Christian Conservative Party and the possibility of becoming head of a coalition government. They are expected to get close to 36 per cent of the vote, compared with less than 27 per cent for the Social Democrats and the Greens and 18 per cent.
“This is a huge disappointment for the SPD,” said Uwe Jun, a political scientist at the University of Trier.
“Given these results,” he said, “the SPD must be aware that it is clearly not seen as a push for the federal government, but it appears to be playing a more supportive role in the coalition at the moment.”
Just days after the Russian invasion on February 24, Mr. Scholz Addressing the German Federal Parliament And promised epoch-making changes and hinted at increased spending on the German military.But since then, the prime minister has impressed many dragging his heels Regarding policies that will actually help Ukraine.
Weeks of debate over whether the German government will allow the export of heavy weapons has raged for weeks before the German Defense Ministry finally announced the delivery of dozens of armored air defense systems.
Germany is also seen as hesitant to punish Russia for aggression. Other EU members say Germany is trying to block a decision to boycott Russian energy imports, which Germans rely heavily on.
Mr Scholz has also been criticised for sending the foreign minister instead of visiting Ukraine’s capital Kyiv on a state visit in person.
A recent poll found that nearly two-thirds of Germans do not see Mr Scholz as a strong leader, with commentators ranging from respected broadsheets to Germany’s boisterous tabloid Bild. Sunday’s election result was seen as a harsh sentence for the first six months of Mr Scholz’s office. The Süddeutsche Zeitung headline called the result a “vote of no confidence in the chancellor”, while Bild called it a “historic slap in the face”.
Voter unease did not appear to have hurt the Greens, one of Scholz’s coalition partners. On Sunday, they were the biggest winners in terms of numbers gained in the last election, improving their performance in 2017 by nearly 12 percentage points. Two of Mr Scholz’s most popular ministers are members of the Green Party, who appear to push most of the popular Ukraine policy within the government coalition. One of the foreign ministers, Annalena Berbock, traveled to Kyiv last week.
The federal government’s third coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, fared poorly in the polls, capturing just under 6 percent of the state’s vote.
In Germany’s state elections, voter participation was unusually low at 56%.
“It’s a test of people’s emotions, and it’s just a reflection of how people think about government work,” Professor Jun said.
Voters handed an important victory to the Christian Democratic Union, which lost federal elections after Chancellor Angela Merkel retired. It keeps conservatives in power in the Industrial West, the former heartland of the Social Democrats, but it could herald a change in tide as voters cast their ballots in several other big state elections over the next few years.
“The CDU is back and our forward-looking line has been proven,” said party leader Friedrich Merz on Twitter.
The election will not directly affect federal politics in Berlin, where Scholz has been running the three-party coalition since December. But the big Western state’s support for the conservative government has exacerbated Scholz’s woes as he tries to keep the government stable and the Social Democrats’ brand strong.
The Russian-Ukrainian War: Key Developments
In addition to regional issues such as education, security and energy, the movement has dealt directly with Russia, as conservative state chapter leaders have accused the Social Democrats of rapport with Moscow.
With one fifth of the German population and 12 million voters, North Rhine Westphalia is one of the most important states in the federation. It is also one of the most representative states due to its diverse makeup, with a long tradition of labor dominance in its cities and more conservative in its rural areas. It is home to many mining and manufacturing jobs in Germany and has been firmly in the hands of the Social Democrats for decades at the end of the last century.
The conservative victory was the first time the CDU has won two consecutive terms in the state since 1962. Hendrik Wüst took over as governor in October.
The conservatives’ victory follows last week’s victory over the Social Democrats in the small northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. Conservatives got a staggering 42 percent of the vote in the state. The Social Democrats, which fielded a relatively unknown candidate, ended the night with just 16 percent of the vote.
But the risks are different there, and not just because Schleswig-Holstein is home to one-sixth of North Rhine-Westphalia’s population. Beyond that, the popular conservative Gov. Daniel Günther is a national figure and has been credited for his successful handling of the pandemic.
None of the candidates vying to lead North Rhine Westphalia are well known outside the state. The SPD is led by Thomas Kutschaty, a 53-year-old lawyer from Essen who served as justice minister in the former Social Democratic government.
Due to the nature of coalition-based politics, a victory for the Conservatives on Sunday will only lead to a Conservative government if they can convince the Greens (or SPD) to form a coalition, making them not only the biggest winners in Sunday’s election, but also the King.