Germany’s ruling centre-right coalition suffered a double defeat on May 9, when it lost its ruling majority in an important state election in North-Rhine Westphalia.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party (CDU) scored its lowest ever vote in the state, dropping 14 points to only 34.6%, on a par with the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), which slipped to 34.5%.
Support for the arch-neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) — the CDU’s coalition partner on a state and federal level — stagnated at 6.8%. The Greens emerged as the big winners, doubling its vote to 12.1%.
The far-left party Die Linke also entered the state parliament for the first time, winning 5.6% — an impressive achievement for what is possibly its most left-wing state branch.
The branch had called for nationalising banks and other utilities and legalising cannabis.
North-Rhine Westphalia — Germany’s traditional industrial heartland and most populous state, with 18 million inhabitants — is seen as indicative of politics on a national level. Its unemployment rate is more than 10%.
CDU threats to cut public spending played a part in the election result, but the campaign was also marked by significant public opposition to the proposed bail-out of the Greek economy. Only 59% of those eligible to vote took part in the election.
The electoral defeat means the CDU and FPD now lose their majority in the Bundesrat — Germany’s parliamentary upper house that includes representatives of state governments — spelling the end of a government proposal to cut income taxes by 16 billion euros from 2012.
The state election result has hamstrung a government whose popularity has been slipping away fast.
A state Green party leader described the result as “the beginning of the end” for Merkel’s government, while the SPD viewed the result as a victory and evidence of its resurgence after several years of near-terminal decline across Germany.
There is still no clear winner in North-Rhine Westphalia, however.
One option is a “grand coalition” between the SPD and CDU. Another is a rather unlikely SDP-Green-Die Linke coalition.
SPD state leader Hannelore Kraft has not ruled out working with Die Linke in order to form government, but many leading SPD members hold a visceral hatred of the “communists” in Die Linke, and will oppose such a move.