North Rhine-Westfailing State Election Loss Has Merkel Challenger on the Ropes

The state election on Sunday in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, was supposed to give Martin Schulz's chancellor candidacy a needed boost. But his party, the Social Democrats, lost to Merkel's CDU. The road ahead looks bumpy.
SPD chancellor candidate Martin Schulz in Berlin on Sunday evening

SPD chancellor candidate Martin Schulz in Berlin on Sunday evening

Foto: Michael Sohn/ AP

Social Democratic Party headquarters in Berlin was more packed than it has been in a long time on Sunday. And the disappointment was more pronounced than usual as well. Indeed, the number of long faces among SPD members gathered there to watch the returns from the state election in North Rhine-Westphalia made it look as though the party had just lost several elections at once.

The frustration was understandable. The center-left party had been hoping that Hannelore Kraft, the SPD governor of the state, would get re-elected and provide essential momentum ahead of this fall's national election. Instead, despite having led in the polls for most of the spring, the SPD limped in with just 31.2 percent of the vote, its worst showing ever in the state, against 33 percent for Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats. It was, following defeats in Saarland in late March and last Sunday in Schleswig-Holstein , the third failure in a row for the party.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. When the SPD announced in January that Sigmar Gabriel was stepping down as party chair and former European Parliament President Martin Schulz was taking over -- and would be the SPD's chancellor candidate in the Sept. 24 general election -- nationwide support for the SPD immediately jumped by over 10 percent.

The survey bump initially made it look as though Merkel was vulnerable. Having staked her tenure on allowing over a million refugees into the country in 2015, it looked as though German voters were tiring of her leadership -- particularly in North Rhine-Westphalia, a state that took in more refugees than any other. Merkel's own apparent lack of enthusiasm  for running again only served to strengthen that impression.

Since then, however, the trend has reversed -- a turnaround clearly illustrated by CDU candidate Armin Laschet's victory in North Rhine-Westphalia, following a campaign in which he explicitly supported Merkel's refugee policies. Indeed, many in the SPD have now begun wondering if Schulz is the right man to lead the center-left to victory over Merkel.

A Bellwether

To be sure, the election in North Rhine-Westphalia was first and foremost a defeat for Kraft and her coalition partner, the Greens. Relative to the 2012 election, the SPD dropped eight percentage points and the Greens plunged from 11.3 percent to just 6.4 percent. And before the election, Kraft had specifically requested that the SPD campaign exclusively on state issues rather than transforming the vote into a dress rehearsal for the general election. To her credit, Kraft -- who not all that long ago had been seen as a potential challenger to Merkel -- immediately resigned from all SPD party posts Sunday night once the scope of her loss became clear.

But North Rhine-Westphalia is Germany's most populous state and elections there are widely seen as a bellwether for the national vote. As such, Schulz is fully aware that Kraft's loss is also a failure for him as well. And Sunday evening, he climbed the stage at SPD headquarters in Berlin not long after the first exit poll figures were announced and said: "For me personally, this is a crushing defeat."

The new SPD leader, celebrated as a savior when he arrived in January, now finds himself in the position of trying to convince his party, and German voters at large, that Merkel's victory in September is not inevitable. And that will be extremely difficult. Indeed, he and the SPD will likely need a minor political miracle.

Schulz admitted as much Sunday, saying that party leaders must now examine "what we have to change here in Berlin. We have to refine our message." But how? In contrast to the campaign four years ago, in which Peer Steinbrück went up against Merkel, the SPD hasn't made any serious campaign trail blunders this time around. Indeed, it is increasingly looking as though the SPD's falling poll numbers are an indication that Schulz's post-announcement popularity boost was ephemeral -- and that Germany's Social Democrats can no longer expect to receive the level of support it used to get before Merkel arrived on the scene.

Wind in Merkel's Sails

On Monday, party leaders are planning to discuss the SPD campaign platform. But it doesn't sound as though they are planning on providing answers to the most pressing questions. Such as how the SPD intends to finance its multibillion euro spending proposals. Or whether the party wants to cut taxes -- and, if so, for whom.

Some SPD leaders say that Schulz, following the recent success  of Emmanuel Macron  in France, could decide to focus his campaign on the European Union to a greater degree than he already has. But it seems unclear what that might mean. The SPD candidate, after all, has already said that he supports the establishment of a joint eurozone budget. What else could he possibly have up his sleeve?

Either way, Laschet's victory now puts wind in the sails of Merkel's campaign. And it is looking increasingly doubtful that the SPD will be able to find a way to stop her.

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