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Photo Gallery: German Regional Election Could Rock Merkel's Coalition

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Snap Election in NRW State Vote Threatens Merkel's Government

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.
Von SPIEGEL Staff

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.

Merkel's Divided Coalition

This doesn't seem to trouble the FDP, which continues to push for tax cuts, even though it lacks a majority for the plan in the upper house of the German parliament, the Bundesrat. This, in turn, is causing strife within the coalition, because the partners have completely different ideas on what should come next. Significant portions of the CDU/CSU want to bring in the opposition center-left SPD to secure a tax compromise and would be willing to raise tax rates for top earners in return. For the FDP, this is a declaration of war. Its remedy for the stalemate on the tax issue is to reduce the solidarity income tax surcharge introduced in 1991 to help fund government transfers to the former communist east of Germany.

The coalition is even divided on issues that ought to yield good news. Health Minister Bahr currently has a surplus of about €10 billion ($1.3 billion). The dispute over what to with the surplus still hasn't been resolved. CDU/CSU parliamentary leader Kauder wants to reduce health contributions, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble wants to reduce the budget deficit and the FDP wants to get rid of an unpopular fee for visiting doctors' surgeries. This would please voters, which is precisely why the CDU/CSU objects to the idea.

Why should the FDP be allowed to score points with such a popular issue, CDU leaders are asking themselves. On the other hand, Wolfgang Kubicki, the FDP's top candidate in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, which will hold a state election on May 6, says: "The FDP has to show that it's fighting for its convictions -- even when this means opposing the CDU/CSU."

One reason the situation is so tense is that so much is at stake for everyone involved, not just the FDP. Hannelore Kraft of the SPD knows that a victory would also change the balance of power within the SPD. The party could revive hopes of winning the 2013 national election in an alliance with the Greens, and Kraft would be the woman who helped the SPD regain its self-confidence.

Do you want to be the candidate for the chancellery, Ms. Kraft? "I'm staying in North Rhine-Westphalia and I'm not interested in any back doors," she says. "This is where my heart is." It sounds honest, but after a possible election win, what the party wants will be more important.

Vote Could Shake Up SPD

Kraft is the hope for those Social Democrats who dislike Schröder's Agenda 2010 and believe that Peer Steinbrück, a former finance minister tipped as a possible SPD chancellor candidate for the 2013 election, is a man with a neoliberal heart. Economizing isn't Kraft's forte. Even in 2011, when the economy was booming, the state's SPD/Green coalition borrowed €3 billion. The CDU/CSU calls this irresponsible, while Kraft describes it as "preventive social policy."

Kraft staunchly defends her debt policy, and that's precisely what impresses the leftists in the SPD. They're tired of hearing the mantra of Steinbrück and his cohorts who say austerity is the only way. Elke Ferner, the deputy SPD leader in the German lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, says she believes Kraft could run for chancellor at any time. "She is at least as qualified as the three male candidates that have been considered so far."

Röttgen, on the other hand, suffers from a surfeit of ambition, many in his party feel. At shortly after 6 p.m. last Tuesday, it became clear to him that his life was about to be turned upside down. CDU General Secretary Oliver Wittke was sitting in the office of CDU parliamentary leader Karl-Josef Laumann, and the two men were holding a conference call with Röttgen.

They were discussing the FDP's refusal to approve the center-left government's state budget and the question of whether this meant a new election. For Röttgen, it was clear that the situation he has always wanted to avoid has finally occurred, namely that he will have to campaign as the CDU's top candidate in North Rhine-Westphalia.

CDU Candidate Röttgen Has Already Damaged Himself

Röttgen is a man who has long envisioned himself in the top tier of politics. When he seized the chairmanship of the CDU in North Rhine-Westphalia a year and a half ago, his main concern was to make himself independent of his former mentor, Merkel. Now he is squirming. Of course, he has agreed to be at the top of the party's ticket. But what happens after that? If the CDU loses, will he have to be regional opposition leader in North Rhine-Westphalia? When the CDU state executive committee met on Wednesday evening, it called upon several members to commit themselves to Düsseldorf. But Röttgen was unwilling to do so. Last Friday, he said: "I am campaigning for the office of governor, and I will not let myself in for eventualities and hypotheses that only benefit the political opponent."

But these are words that don't even convince his own people. Ruprecht Polenz, a CDU member of the state parliament, openly called upon Röttgen to commit himself to North Rhine-Westphalia. "He will leave no doubt that he is also personally prepared to take a risk for an election victory," said Polenz.

But Röttgen has steadfastly refused to let himself be pinned down on what he will do if he loses the election, despite mounting pressure within the CDU for him to pledge that his future now lies in North Rhine-Westphalia, whether he wins or loses.

Merkel is watching Röttgen's campaign with a mixture of Schadenfreude and concern. Of course she knows what Röttgen says privately about her lack of courage to lead. Now she sees how Röttgen is vacillating himself. On the other hand, the new election clearly comes at a bad time. Merkel had intended to lay the foundation this year for her own election victory in 2013. Now it looks as though the election in North Rhine-Westphalia will inspire one thing more than anything: the hope for an SPD/Green Party win in the national election.

And all this because of a parliamentary official named Thesling? The public servant, at any rate, stands a good chance of going down in German parliamentary history.

FRANK DOHMEN, KATRIN ELGER, PETER MÜLLER, RENÉ PFISTER, SVEN RÖBEL, BARBARA SCHMID, MERLIND THEILE

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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