Generally, state elections in Germany are rather mundane affairs. Apart from minor shifts in the balance of power among the country's main political parties, not much changes.
Sunday's election in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, however, could be different. For months, Chancellor Angela Merkel has been doing her best to avoid missteps ahead of the vote in order to give her fellow Christian Democrat (CDU) Jürgen Rüttgers the best chance possible to be re-elected as the state's governor.
The result, though, has been stasis in Berlin. Since Merkel's own re-election last September, all her party's main reform projects have been on hold pending the North Rhine-Westphalia vote. Tax reform, while a topic of considerable back-and-forth in Merkel's governing coalition with the business-friendly Free Democrats, has not been decided on. A pending health care reform has been put on the back burner. Even a decision on whether to extend the lives of the country's nuclear power facilities has been avoided for the possible damage it could do to CDU election results.
One of the only major decisions taken by Merkel's government since it was sworn in last October was this week's pledge to provide €22.4 billon ($28.6 billion) in aid to ailing Greece over the next three years. Even that decision, say many, came dangerously late as the chancellor tried to delay it until after this Sunday's poll.
A Major Shake-Up
It remains to be seen whether Merkel's strategy of keeping political feathers unruffled will pay off -- or whether it will fail completely. Indeed, with just days to go before the vote, it is looking increasingly risky. The CDU in the state has been beset by a number of campaign finance scandals, including accusations that the party had been offering local companies meetings with Rüttgers in exchange for money. The CDU has lost the 11 percentage point lead it enjoyed over its main challenger, the Social Democrats (SPD) in mid-January and a recent poll shows that support for the party is now equal to that for the SPD, led by Hannelore Kraft.
Even more problematic for Merkel, should her CDU not be returned to power in coalition with the FDP in the state, then her majority in the Bundesrat, Germany's upper legislative chamber, will have vanished, making far-reaching reform on the national stage virtually impossible.
But Merkel isn't the only story of the elections in North Rhine-Westphalia. The vote could pave the way for a major shake-up in German politics on the national level. It could mark a reversal in the SPD's declining fortunes in recent years. And it could be the coming out party for two new parties with national aspirations. SPIEGEL ONLINE tells you what to watch for.
Will Merkel Lose the Power to Enact Political Reform?
Few would accuse Chancellor Angela Merkel of being a proponent of political revolution. She is generally seen as a leader who prefers to watch and wait before making a decision, rather than one to push through controversial decisions.
During her first term in office, of course, her hands were tied by her Social Democratic coalition partners, the center-left yin to her party's center-right yang. But since her re-election last September, at the head of a coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), many expected her to embark on a path of reform.
Her coalition agreement with the FDP foresees a significant reform to German health care, which would change the way in which contributions to the perennially indebted system are made. Instead of employees contributing 7.9 percent of their salaries, the FDP is in favor of a one-size-fits-all, €150 per capita contribution per month. It is an idea that has found some support, though tepid, from Merkel's CDU.
Merkel's government has also promised tax cuts and tax reform -- a project particularly supported by the FDP. The topic has been the subject of significant bickering between the CDU and the FDP since last September's election, given the strain put on the German budget by the financial crisis and a significant drop in tax revenue. Nevertheless, many politicians from within the governing coalition have insisted that some sort of tax cut remains possible.
Finally, both the CDU and the FDP are in favor of extending the lifespans of Germany's nuclear power facilities. A law passed in 2002 under then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the SPD, foresees all nuclear reactors in Germany being shut down by the early 2020s. But Merkel's coalition would like to extend that limit, despite deep concern about the safety of nuclear power among German voters.
All of these decisions have been pushed until after Sunday's vote in North Rhine-Westphalia for fear of hurting the re-election chances of Governor Jürgen Rüttgers and his FDP coalition partners.
Sunday's vote, however, could put an end to talk of any major reform. Most bills in Germany, in addition to requiring approval by the Bundestag, the country's lower house of parliament, must also be rubber-stamped by the Bundesrat, the upper legislative chamber made up in part of delegates from Germany's 16 states.
At present, Merkel's conservative-FDP coalition has a majority of 37 of the 69 votes in the Bundesrat. Should the SPD manage to get enough votes on Sunday to form a governing coalition with the Greens, or should the FDP not be returned to power as Rüttgers' coalition partner, Merkel's majority in the Bundesrat would vanish.
And that would mean that Merkel would once again head up a governing coalition with little power to effect change.
Can Hannelore Kraft Bring the Social Democrats Back from the Dead?
When the voters of North Rhine-Westphalia went to the polls in 2005, Gerhard Schröder was still chancellor of Germany, as the head of a coalition with the Green Party, and the Social Democrats were still comfortable in their position as being one of the country's two largest political parties.
Since then, much has changed. The 2005 vote saw a CDU politician take over the reins of power in North Rhine-Westphalia for the first time in almost four decades. Of much greater significance, however, was Chancellor Schröder's announcement just a half hour after polls closed that he was calling snap elections to be held a year ahead of schedule as a result of SPD's poor showing. It marked the beginning of a long slide in SPD fortunes and support. Indeed, as recently as December, support for the SPD was a lowly 21 percent, according to public opinion polls.
Sunday's vote could mark a reversal of that trend and the state SPD leader Hannelore Kraft, a name unfamiliar to most in Germany until recently, could emerge as the party's savior. Winning back power in the country's most populous state would be a powerful antidote to the miasma that has dogged the SPD.
An Authentic Woman of the People
One recent poll shows the SPD with 37 percent support in North Rhine-Westphalia, exactly as much as the Christian Democrats under Governor Jürgen Rüttgers. More than anything, the respectable position of the SPD on the eve of the election has to do with campaign finance irregularities which have hit the CDU. In February, SPIEGEL broke the story that the CDU had been offering local companies meetings with Rüttgers in exchange for money.
Then, SPIEGEL reported this week that during the 2005 election campaign in the state, the CDU funded the creation of a supposedly independent voters' initiative called "Voters for Change" which published large newspaper advertisements backing Rüttgers. The group collected donations from celebrities and prominent businesspeople in the state but not a cent of the money was listed as donations in the CDU's accounts.
But Kraft has emerged as a political power in her own right, shaking off early doubts about her campaigning ability and seeking to present herself as an authentic woman of the people. She has abandoned her Audi in favor of an Opel, as a sign of solidarity with the struggling carmaker. She also got rid of her Nokia mobile phone due to the company's having slashed jobs in Germany. Her image has become one of decisiveness and purpose.
Still, Kraft remains haunted by the same Achilles heel that has dogged her SPD for five years: Would she enter into a coalition with the far left Left Party if need be?
So far, Kraft has dodged the question. Indeed, polls indicate that the Left Party, a group that, in part, grew out of the former Communist party which ruled East Germany, may not leap the 5 percent hurdle required to send delegates to parliament.
Nevertheless, should a situation arise in which Kraft must choose between forming a coalition with the Left Party or abandoning a claim to the governorship, her answer will be profoundly important. Missteps on exactly this question have, in the recent past, cost the SPD dearly with German voters.
Is Germany's Future Green?
The city-state of Hamburg has one. So does the small western German state of Saarland. But so far, that's it. Not a single larger German state has a governing coalition made up of the center-right Christian Democrats and the Greens.
Sunday's vote in North Rhine-Westphalia might change that. And if it does, it could pave the way for an eventual CDU-Green coalition at the national level in Berlin.
Polls currently show that a governing coalition pairing the CDU with the Greens is a very real possibility, should the two parties decide to take the plunge. Indeed, the environmental party currently has some 12 percent support, a positive showing that reflects the party's climbing numbers across the country.
Still, a CDU-Green pairing has never been particularly attractive for either party. Many in the CDU still see the Greens as an undisciplined group of post-hippy rabble-rousers. And many in the Greens are wary of the CDU's pro-nuclear, pro-coal positions on energy issues.
Looking for New Partners
Recent years, though, have seen the Social Democrats -- with whom the Greens formed a governing coalition under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder -- haemorrhage support, making it clear that, if the Greens want any power at all, they have to look elsewhere for a partner. Green-CDU pairings in Saarland and Hamburg are seen as first steps. Sylvia Löhrmann, the Greens lead candidate in North Rhine-Westphalia, has said that, while a partnership with the SPD is her first choice, she is not ruling out a pairing with the CDU.
It is a line that echoes the Green's national leadership. Germany's Greens are doing their best to position themselves at the very center of the country's political spectrum. They match up well with the Free Democrats on rights issues, agree with the Social Democrats on education and labor policy and back the CDU when it comes to defense issues. Sunday's results will show whether the party's march to the center takes a significant step forward.
Headscarves and Minarets
Not all the news from Sunday's elections in North Rhine-Westphalia is going to be made by Germany's larger, established parties. Two tiny parties, while not expecting to leap the 5 percent hurdle into the state parliament, are nevertheless hoping to draw attention to themselves and use the state vote as a springboard onto the national stage.
The first simply calls itself BIG, an acronym which stands for the Alliance of Innovation and Justice. Behind the title, though, is one of the very first political parties in Germany started by Muslims and the first party to get a woman wearing a headscarf elected to a parliament in Germany.
Hülya Dogan, elected to the Bonn city council last August, insists that BIG is not just a party for Muslims. "We want to represent everybody," she recently told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Still, most of the party's support has thus far come from Muslim voters and Dogan, by wearing her headscarf in the Bonn city council, wants to draw attention to issues affecting Muslims. "It is nice if they identify with us," Dogan says of Muslim voters. "That just shows that there is a group in Germany that does not feel they are being represented by the other parties."
'A New Brand Name'
The party hopes to get up to 10,000 votes in Sunday's election before ultimately playing a role in national politics.
The other party hoping to make waves this weekend is BIG's polar opposite. Called Pro-NRW, the party's primary raison d'etre is its hatred for all things Muslim. The party grew out of a political group in Cologne, which cut its teeth in a campaign to prevent the construction of a mosque there. Now, Pro-NRW is hoping to lead a fight in Germany to push through a ban on the construction of minarets similar to that which passed in Switzerland last November. Indeed, just in March, Pro-NRW hosted a gathering of anti-Muslim parties from across Europe to discuss plans to launch a citizens' initiative calling for a Europe-wide ban on minarets.
"The Islamization of our cities is continuing and there is broad fear among the populace," Pro-NRW head Markus Beisicht told SPIEGEL ONLINE in March. "If we do well in the elections, 2.5 percent of the vote or better, we will become a new brand name in Germany."
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