Snap Election in NRW: State Vote Threatens Merkel's Government

By SPIEGEL Staff

A snap election in North Rhine-Westphalia will put Chancellor Angela Merkel's government under intense strain this spring. Her junior partner, the FDP, is putting its own survival above coalition unity. And an early tactical error by her party's candidate, Norbert Röttgen, could wreck its chance of winning the vote.

Photo Gallery: German Regional Election Could Rock Merkel's Coalition Photos
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In December 1972, the American meteorologist Edward Lorenz gave a presentation to scientists in Washington, DC. He said that the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil could set off a tornado in Texas. His metaphor entered the scientific history books as the butterfly effect. At its core, it posits that under certain circumstances, even tiny changes can destabilize an entire system.

The butterfly effect entered the realm of German politics at 9:30 a.m. last Monday, when six employees of the parliamentary administration arrived at the office of Peter Jeromin, the director of the parliament in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, for a routine meeting. Before long, one of the attendees speculated over what might happen if the small, pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) decided to reject the proposed budget of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Green Party minority government in a second reading.

Hans-Josef Thesling, the official in charge of parliamentary services, said he wanted to examine the legal ramifications of the issue. Shortly after he submitted his conclusions the next day, the state parliament in Düsseldorf dissolved itself. Soon politicians throughout Germany were transfixed by the developments in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Because Thesling and his colleagues concluded that a no vote in the second reading would result in the collapse of the state budget, a snap election has now been scheduled for North Rhine-Westphalia on May 13. For Chancellor Angela Merkel and other top German politicians, this date is now more important than the euro crisis. Their focus will now shift to local towns like Wanne-Eickel and Gummersbach, and away from Brussels and the hot spots in the Middle East.

North Rhine-Westphalia is the curse of Merkel's center-right coalition of Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and FDP. Their alliance got off to a listless start in 2009 because Jürgen Rüttgers, then the CDU governor of the North Rhine-Westphalia, demanded that the Berlin government refrain from policies that could damage his re-election bid. So Merkel began her second term of office with six tortuous months of inactivity. When North Rhine-Westphalia finally voted in May 2010, Rüttgers lost the election, partly because of public discontent over the lethargy of Merkel's coalition. That was the irony of history.

Now senior officials with the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), are insisting that they will not pursue a wait-and-see policy this time. "We won't make that mistake again," says CDU/CSU parliamentary leader Volker Kauder. But he says this more out of hope than conviction. CDU General Secretary Hermann Gröhe is also at pains to allay fears of political gridlock in the coming weeks. "The FDP's somewhat difficult situation," he says, will not impair the functioning of the government in Berlin.

Vote Will Have Big Impact on National Politics

But North Rhine-Westphalia is too big not to have an impact on national politics. It is home to nine of the 30 companies listed on Germany's DAX stockmarket index and, with a population of 18 million, the state is a microcosm of the entire country. When Rüttgers came to power in Düsseldorf, ending 38 years of SPD dominance in state politics, it was the beginning of the end of the chancellorship of Gerhard Schröder.

This time, once again, there is more at stake than control of Germany's most populous state. CDU politician Norbert Röttgen, the German environment minister, wants to show that he has what it takes to lead the party in the post-Merkel era. The leftists within the SPD, for their part, hope that state party leader Hannelore Kraft will win the election and, as a result, will emerge as a potential candidate for the chancellery, thereby blocking the candidacies of Peer Steinbrück and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, both supporters of the controversial Agenda 2010 program of welfare and labor reforms.

And the struggling FDP? Its main goal is merely to survive. Party leader Philipp Rösler, the economy minister, has made clear that from now on, the welfare of the FDP is more important to him than that of the coalition. "So far, the emphasis in the federal government has been on compromise," he says. "Now we need a different approach." Rösler's words reveal the realization that the party can't regain the support of voters by continuing to work quietly within the Berlin alliance, because the only one who benefits in the end is Merkel.

The FDP leader is now gazing into the abyss. It would be a miracle if the party manages to stay in parliament in North Rhine-Westphalia. Its current opinion poll ratings there are far below the five percent threshold needed to win seats. The numbers are so bad at the moment that a grim sense of humor has taken hold within the party. The running joke is that the abbreviation "FDP" now stands for "fast drei Prozent" ("almost three percent").

Last Thursday evening, it became clear just how weakened Rösler is. After the new election had been announced, the state leadership of the FDP in North Rhine-Westphalia met at the NH Hotel in Düsseldorf at 8 p.m. Rösler had even canceled a trip to the United States to attend the meeting, hoping to send the message that the party leader himself would be involved in choosing the party's candidates in Germany's most important state. But things didn't turn out that way.

FDP Leader Rösler Humiliated

Regional FDP chairman Daniel Bahr, floor leader Gerhard Papke and former national General Secretary Christian Lindner got together just before the 8:00 p.m. meeting. Bahr, who is also the German health minister, offered Lindner the leadership of the campaign. Bahr expects an FDP defeat and doesn't want to be damaged by it. Lindner had also rejected all advances earlier in the week, saying that he wasn't interested in a kamikaze campaign. He relented in the end, but tied his candidacy to one condition: Bahr had to relinquish the state chairmanship to him. Bahr eventually agreed.

Meanwhile, Rösler was on the next floor down, sitting with ordinary party members. Bahr and Linder had deliberately kept Vice Chancellor Rösler out of their critical meeting. Bahr merely sent him an occasional text message. It was a blatant humiliation of Rösler, who waited, along with the rest of the party leadership, for the other three senior party members until shortly before 9 p.m. "He stood around with us, looking all dressed up with nowhere to go," says a member of the FDP executive committee. When Lindner, Bahr and Papke finally appeared and announced their coup to the committee, Rösler had no choice but to applaud with the rest.

Lindner's surprise comeback makes the situation even dicier for Rösler. The relationship between the two men has been seen as dysfunctional since Lindner resigned as general secretary last December. Now the young politician has suddenly become a powerful adversary overnight. Even if he loses the election in North Rhine-Westphalia, he retains the chairmanship of the most important FDP state organization. In that role, he has the power to impose his will on Rösler -- if that's even necessary anymore.

Party strategists fear that a defeat in North Rhine-Westphalia will encourage the base to vent its accumulated frustrations, and that Rösler's days as chairman could be numbered. Bahr feels that he stands a chance of succeeding him, but floor leader Rainer Brüderle is probably next in line.

It would be satisfying for Brüderle to unseat Rösler from the throne. He hasn't forgotten that Rösler launched an intrigue against him when Brüderle's regional FDP organization was voted out of parliament of the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate last year. Rösler wrested the office of economy minister from Brüderle, and it was only with difficulty that Brüderle managed to secure the position of parliamentary floor leader.

At the moment, everyone is suspicious of everyone. And then there is the problem of the lack of a party strategy. Everyone agrees that the FDP can no longer allow itself to be short-changed by Merkel's conservatives. "We are an independent party," says Rösler.

But what is that supposed to mean? Rösler and General Secretary Patrick Döring are currently pushing classic FDP themes, singing the praises of the middle class and calling for lower taxes. But this is precisely what strikes many voters as too one-sided.

SPIEGEL has obtained a poll of the preferences of FDP voters done a few weeks ago by the Forsa market research institute and commissioned by party headquarters. According to the results, 49 percent of FDP voters say that the party should not just represent the interests of the middle class, but "also issues that are important to all levels of society." Half of traditional FDP voters support a statutory minimum wage, while only a minority favor tax cuts. Even if government revenues were to increase, only 31 percent of traditional FDP voters and only 19 percent of former FDP voters want to see taxes reduced.

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