03/20/2012 01:56 PM

The World From Berlin

'It's Clear Who the Loser Is' in Upcoming NRW Vote

Chancellor Merkel's conservatives hope to win back support in North Rhine-Westphalia in a state election this spring, but her party's top candidate there may have put their chances at risk. German commentators on Tuesday remark on Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen's unpopular resistance to state politics.

An unexpected state election is approaching in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, following the collapse of the state parliament there last week. As if that weren't enough political drama for voters to handle, this week the campaign has been overshadowed by uncertainty surrounding the conservative candidate for the state governorship, federal Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen.

As the state leader for Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Röttgen is expected to act as governor if the party wins, and lead the opposition if they lose. But Röttgen, an ambitious politician who sees himself as a future chancellor, appears to think the latter would be a step down. Rather than filling the less-prominent position of state opposition leader if his party loses the election, he reportedly wants to keep his ministerial post.

Over the weekend, mass-circulation daily Bild reported that Röttgen was resisting pressure to make the decision, telling Merkel he would keep his options open until after the election. Then on Monday, the paper cited sources close to Röttgen saying that he had expressed his desire to remain in the Environment Ministry rather than go into state politics if he loses.

Close Race Expected

The reports have sparked widespread criticism of Röttgen within both the CDU and among its opponents. Meanwhile, the group of CDU lawmakers from North Rhine-Westphalia in the national parliament are pressuring him to stay in the state regardless of the election outcome on May 13. CDU parliamentarian Wolfgang Bosbach said at a meeting of the group that the election will be neck-and-neck, and that the CDU's chances would improve if Röttgen made clear he had no reservations about remaining in the state, an unnamed participant in the group's meeting on Monday evening told daily Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger. Bosbach's position was backed by everyone at the meeting, the paper added.

Röttgen is running against current Governor Hannelore Kraft, the center-left Social Democrat who has led the state in a minority coalition with the environmentalist Greens since 2010, when they replaced a coalition of the CDU and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP). But last week, Kraft's coalition voted unanimously to dissolve itself after it failed to pass a budget by just one vote.

Germany's commentators take a look at how Röttgen's actions are influencing the campaign.

Left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"The campaign in North Rhine-Westphalia has hardly begun and it's already clear who the big loser is. Norbert Röttgen has fallen into a trap that he set himself. Not yet formally declared the CDU's top candidate, he's already taken himself out."

"By stubbornly refusing to answer the question of whether he would change to the post of opposition leader on May 13, he is squandering his chance for achieving such a sensation. With this maneuver, Röttgen has demonstrated that not even he believes he can oust the popular incumbent. … Röttgen avoids taking a real risk -- and thus robs himself of any chance for a political turnaround in the region."

Center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote on Monday:

"The state isn't debating the right budgetary policies or how the Ruhr Valley region can be helped. The most important question seems to be whether Röttgen would also lead the opposition if he loses the election. Some make it sound as though he should already accept his just punishment: become a provincial politician."

"The fact that this debate has gone on with such intensity is due to the negative feelings that some have about Röttgen. It could be that he's someone who thinks only of himself, and for whom power in North Rhine-Westphalia is just a rung on the ladder to the Chancellery."

"Making the change would not turn Röttgen into another person. Running for governor in a state election isn't a marriage-like contract for better or for worse. And would someone who the voters don't trust to be a good governor even turn out to be a good opposition leader? It's strange logic. An applicant for a post on the board of directors doesn't need to make assurances that if things don't work out, he'd also wildy enthusiastic about being the department manager. … The debate shouldn't be about whether the progress for the state is more important to him than his own fate. And those who currently care more about the candidate than North Rhine-Westphalia's problems should take that to heart."

Conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"This is what you call a false start. The CDU hasn't even properly begun its election campaign in North Rhine-Westphalia, and Röttgen already has his first bruises. He will not emerge unscathed from the dispute over what form his political career should take following the state election on May 13."

"He was faced with a choice of two unattractive alternatives. If he, as a national politician, says he wants to return to his job in Berlin after being defeated in a state election campaign, then this will be interpreted as an admission that he didn't really want to be state governor. But if he says he will remain in the state and bid farewell to national politics, then he will be accused of conceding defeat and accepting an opposition role too early. The former does not do justice to his own party, while the latter gives his opponent ammunition."

"But Röttgen has opted for the worst possible option: He has tried to cover all his bases and has therefore fanned the flames of the debate among friends and foes alike. Röttgen, incidentally, does not seem to have many friends, when people even in his own state chapter and in the national party are loudly calling for him to finally take a clear stance and prepare himself for a long-term role as opposition leader."

-- Kristen Allen


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