State elections in North Rhine-Westphalia – The beginning of turbulent times for the German federal government?

by Niklas Burg


On 15 May 2022, state elections were held in Germany for the second time in a fortnight, this time in the west of the country and in the most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), with around 13 million eligible voters.

The Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) emerged as the party with the most votes. According to the provisional results, the party received 35.7% of the votes. The CDU's biggest rival, the social democratic SPD, received 26.7% of the vote, which is the party's worst result ever in a state election in NRW. In particular, the exceedingly low turnout of only 56% probably benefited the incumbent's party rather than the SPD. The second big winner of the election was the Greens, who roughly tripled their result compared to the last election and got 18.2% of the vote. The liberal FDP, which came in at 12.6% in 2017, crashed in this election and entered the state parliament with only 5.9% of the vote. The right-wing populist AfD also lost vote share, but also entered parliament with 5.4%. The Left Party clearly failed to clear the five-percent-threshold.

Based on these results s, there will be a premiere in NRW. Never before has there been a government there that did not correspond to the classic camps (a more conservative alliance of CDU and FDP or a more left-wing alliance of SPD and Greens). Currently, two options seem to be the most realistic with regard to a new government. One would be an alliance between the CDU and the Greens. This has already been discussed several times at the federal level and has already been implemented in some states. Here it will depend on what the CDU can offer the Greens to agree to a joint coalition, since the party has another coalition option. This is a so-called traffic light coalition of Social Democrats (red), Liberals (yellow) and Greens. Such an alliance already exists at the federal level and supports the federal government. Even though the Liberals would first have to be convinced of this, which does not seem self-evident in view of the massive losses of the Liberals and the Social Democrats, the Greens are probably in the most comfortable position of all parties.

The SPD in particular, which had high hopes in the run-up to the election that it would be able to replace the CDU as the strongest force and provide the new prime minister, has a lot to analyse in the coming weeks. The support of Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the election campaign apparently did not have much effect. The defeat in the "heartland" of German social democracy weighs particularly heavily and will ensure extensive discussions in the party at the federal level as well. For the CDU, on the other hand, Hendrik Wüst's victory is the second clear win by an incumbent minister-president within two weeks (a week ago Daniel Günther clearly won the state elections in Schleswig-Holstein). Both politicians are under 50 years old and thus relatively young. They will now probably both be seen as the party's hopefuls for bigger tasks in the future.

For the Greens, the election result is not only a great success in NRW but could also have a noticeable influence on federal politics and thus on the federal government. There, they will probably be able to turn the balance of power in their favour in the coming weeks and months. In addition to two state elections with very large gains, the two former party leaders and current federal ministers Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock are by far the two most popular politicians in Germany. SPD and FDP will be primarily concerned with themselves after two extremely disappointing state elections. Turbulent times are expected for the FDP in particular, which lost massive numbers of voters to the CDU and halved its result compared to the last election. It is quite likely that the party will try to distinguish itself through sharper rhetoric. The tone within the federal government is thus likely to become harsher in the coming weeks.

RPP will be observing the further development in North Rhine-Westphalia and on the federal level. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us at any time.

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