It was well over a month ago that North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, headed to the polls for a crucial state election -- one which voters used to give voice to their dissatisfaction with German Chancellor Angela Merkel's governing coalition. Neither the center-left nor the center-right, however, received a clear mandate.
Now, after weeks of fruitless coalition negotiations, the Social Democrats and the Greens have decided to go it alone and try to form a minority government. It is a move that, should it work, will change the balance of power in the Bundesrat, Germany's upper legislative chamber, eliminating Merkel's majority and making it even more difficult for her already acrimonious coalition to pass legislation.
"North Rhine-Westphalia needs governing stability," sources within the state's Social Democrats (SPD) told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "A coalition between the SPD and the Greens will create that."
Hannelore Kraft, SPD leader in North Rhine-Westphalia, will now stand against Governor Jürgen Rüttgers, of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in a parliamentary vote, set to take place by July 13. The SPD and Greens are one vote short of the absolute majority necessary to push Kraft through in the first three rounds of voting. In the fourth round, however, a simple majority is enough. The center-right CDU and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) are well short of having enough votes to block Kraft's election in the fourth round.
The CDU received just 34.6 percent of the vote in the May 9 elections, 10 percentage points below its performance in the last state election five years ago. The drop was attributed both to a party funding scandal in the state as well as creeping disillusionment with Merkel's leadership in Berlin.
But the Social Democrats, true to a years-long trend of disappointing poll results, only managed 34.5 percent of the vote. Crucially, however, the SPD-allied Green Party doubled its share of the vote to 12.1 percent while the FDP polled a disappointing 6.7 percent. The Left Party, seen as politically unpalatable because of its historical connection with the East German communist party, received 5.6 percent of the vote.
Recent weeks have seen Kraft attempt to assemble a governing coalition with the Greens and the FDP together, but that ultimately failed. A pairing of the SPD and CDU was likewise jettisoned due to CDU insistence that Rüttgers remain governor.
With the establishment of Kraft's minority government, the SPD and Greens would be able to block legislation proposed by Chancellor Merkel's coalition. In particular, the parties aim to obstruct any attempts by Berlin to extend the lifespans of the country's nuclear reactors. A planned health care system reform has also been targeted.
Still, Kraft's step is not without risk. State law requires an absolute majority to pass its budget, meaning that the SPD and Greens will need at least one vote from the opposition. Should she fail, new elections would have to be called.