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A Paralyzing State Election: The Man Who Could Take Down Merkel

By René Pfister

Jürgen Rüttgers, the powerful governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, currently holds the reins of German politics. He doesn't want anyone rocking the boat before crucial state elections in May and is hampering much-needed reforms. He could even pose a challenge to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Jürgen Rüttgers, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, is standing for reelection in May. Zoom
dpa

Jürgen Rüttgers, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, is standing for reelection in May.

It isn't hard to get the prominent German politician Jürgen Rüttgers angry. In fact, all it takes is a single question, as a recent incident showed.

Rüttgers, who is the conservative governor of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, had just schmoozed his way through his party's New Year's reception in the city of Gelsenkirchen. "Nice to see you," he said enthusiastically to his guests, speaking in the local dialect of German. Rüttgers was playing the role of the patriarchal state governor with gusto, showing that he was ready to listen to anyone, even for the head of the local community garden association.

But there it is again, the question that he is constantly being asked these days, on newspaper opinion pages, by fellow party members and by ordinary people: Is Rüttgers the biggest obstructionist in German politics? Is the government in Berlin so gridlocked because Rüttgers wants to win the upcoming parliamentary election in his state, which will be held on May 9?

When Rüttgers hears the question, his body becomes visibly tense. He snorts loudly before responding that the accusation infuriates him. He insists that he, of all people, has a strong interest in making sure that the coalition government in Berlin, which is made up of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), functions properly.

One could interpret his reaction as genuine outrage. But the more likely explanation is that Rüttgers has honed his acting skills over the years that he has been state governor. The truth is that he is currently the most powerful man in German politics. Over the coming three months, it won't just be the Chancellery in Berlin that will be running Germany -- the state chancellery in the North Rhine-Westphalia capital Düsseldorf will also have a say. And what Rüttgers and his people want more than anything is to make sure that nothing rocks the boat between now and the election.

Making a Deal

Chancellor Angela Merkel has made a deal with Rüttgers, based on the following principle: the party comes first, then Germany. Merkel wants to make sure that no unpopular decisions are made before the early summer. This explains why the debate over tax reform is currently on hold, why the government is not going to present any proposals on how to reform the healthcare system, and why there will be no announcements regarding the controversial topic of how much longer the country's nuclear power plants will be kept in operation.

Rüttgers' end of the bargain is to win the election. A defeat would mean that the CDU, CSU and FDP would lose their majority in the Bundesrat, the upper house of the German parliament that represents the country's 16 states. That would leave them dependent on the goodwill of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party to get legislation passed.

Rüttgers is now such an important figure that he is always at the table when the leaders of the coalition government meet in the capital. He has become the specter at the feast of Berlin politics. "Not a single meeting is held in which someone doesn't mention May 9," senior CSU official Stefan Müller recently told fellow party members.

CDU/CSU parliamentary floor leader Volker Kauder suggested to his colleagues in the Bundestag that they would be well advised not to answer calls from journalists during the next few months. "I very much hope," Kauder cautioned, "that you will refrain from making any provocative statements in public."

'We Need to Make Allowances for Rüttgers'

The scope of Rüttgers' influence was in full evidence two weeks ago, when the chancellor met with FDP leader Guido Westerwelle and CSU Chairman Horst Seehofer to discuss their plans for the coming months. It ought to have been a good opportunity for the three party leaders to finally address their tiresome dispute over tax reforms, but nothing was further from Merkel's and Seehofer's minds.

Fearing that any discussion of tax reforms could alienate Rüttgers, Merkel and Seehofer urged Westerwelle to leave the issue until May. Westerwelle, who is also Germany's vice chancellor and foreign minister, eventually relented, and the party leaders agreed in writing to postpone the discussion until after the official tax revenue forecast is issued in May. "After all, it is totally clear that we need to make allowances for Rüttgers," Seehofer said after the meeting. It sounded like an apology.

Merkel is taking a big risk by agreeing to put everything on ice for the sake of Rüttgers. Of course, she will benefit if Rüttgers wins the state parliamentary election. A victory for the CDU in North Rhine-Westphalia, a state which was traditionally a stronghold of the center-left Social Democrats, would be the first serious setback for the SPD's new leader, Sigmar Gabriel. This is one of the reasons why Merkel's schedule already includes 10 appearances as part of the CDU's election campaign in North Rhine-Westphalia.

On the other hand, the coming months of agonizing calm will only solidify her reputation as a chancellor who is incapable of making decisions. Besides, she has no guarantee that Rüttgers will later show his appreciation for the helpful support from Berlin.

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