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Merkel’s party loses seats in state election

May 15, 2012

Campaign photo featuring Hannelore Kraft, leader of the Social Democratic Party in North-Rhine Westphalia.

Last weekend’s headline stories out of Europe were the elections in Greece and France, both of which were perceived as being influenced by the growth of anti-austerity sentiment throughout the continent. Specifically, some analysts viewed the success of anti-austerity parties and candidates in France and Greece as a blow to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has become possibly the most visible face of the pro-austerity crowd. Germany itself had an important state level election this past weekend, in its most populous region, North-Rhine Westphalia.

As we’ve pointed out here before, state elections in Germany are perceived as important bellwethers of national political trends. In addition, in Germany’s federal system, state governments actually have a fair amount of autonomy compared to their counterparts in centralized countries such as France and the United Kingdom. Germany had already held two earlier state elections in 2012, in Saarland and in Schleswig-Holstein. In the March election in Saarland, Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) retained the same level of support from the previous election, but its coalition partner Free Democrats saw their support collapse, and the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) increased their support. In the Schleswig-Holstein election in early May, the CDU once again retained the same level of support as in the previous election, but it lost 12 seats in the state legislature due to gains from other parties. Both elections featured strong showings by the new Pirate Party, a youth-oriented party that campaigns on issues of internet privacy.

The North-Rhine Westphalia election was seen as more significant because of the state’s size; it makes up just over 20% of Germany’s population. This election saw a much bigger collapse in support for the CDU, as its vote share decreased by over 8% to 26.3%, its worst ever performance in the region. At the same time, the SDP increased its vote share from 34.5% to 39.1%. The Pirates once again had a strong showing, gathering 7.8% of the vote and entering its fourth state level parliament. (Full results can be seen here.)

So, what does this all mean? Certainly, the headlines from most English-language stories on the election imply that it is very bad news for Merkel. The headlines variously proclaim that Merkel was dealt a blow, that the vote was a rebuke to her party, that her austerity agenda was rejected, and so on. Merkel herself presented the election as a battle between the thrifty deficit-cutters in her own party and the big-spending SPD-Green Party coalition that had ruled the state since 2010. The CDU leader in North-Rhine Westphalia campaign, Norbert Roettgen, cast the election in even starker terms, much to his co-partisans’ chagrin. In words that he likely regrets in retrospect, he claimed before the vote that the election would decide “whether Angela Merkel’s course in Europe is strengthened or whether it is weakened by the re-election of a pro-debt government in Germany.”

Will the North-Rhine Westphalia election have broader repercussions throughout Europe? Here the evidence is more mixed. For one thing, while Germans might not favor harsh austerity policies at home, polls indicate that they favor Merkel’s pro-austerity stance vis-à-vis countries that have received EU-funded bailouts. Related to this, Merkel’s own popularity ratings remain high. However, there are a couple of ways in which the CDU defeat in North-Rhine Westphalia could make itself felt at the national level. First, Merkel’s government will need to cobble together 2/3 support in the Bundestag to ratify the EU fiscal compact that was signed in March, forcing governments to keep their deficits below a minimum threshold. The opposition could feel emboldened by the recent state elections and demand greater concessions in return for their support for the agreement; such concessions could involve supplementing the fiscal compact with pro-growth measures, as recently elected Francois Hollande has suggested. Second, one of the main reasons for skepticism regarding the SPD’s chances of coming to power has been the lack of a nationally recognized, charismatic leader. In North-Rhine Westphalia, however, the SPD’s success owed much to the charisma and likability of State Premier Hannelore Kraft. Although she has in the past disavowed the idea that she would lead the SPD in national elections, some analysts believe that she represents the SPD’s best chance to compete with Merkel.

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