Sun May 9th, 2010 at 07:37:22 AM EST
By now we've all been inundated by mainstream media reporting (quite accurately, for a change) that German chancellor Angela Merkel has been dragging her feet on the Greece bailout out of concern for the elections in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) on May 9th.
Why is this election so important? And why is the CDU/FDP coalition in trouble?
Promoted by Jérôme. We'll have a results thread later today
Polls closed at 18h CET, exit polls are out, see comments -DoDo
The first thing we need to consider is that NRW is the most populous single state in the nation, with over 17 million - 20% of the German population, and more populous than either the Netherlands or Belgium. And of those, 22% have what is called a "migration background" (if we include ethnic Germans immigrating from Eastern Europe). Though not the largest state in terms of land area, it is still large for Germany, and contains both rural and urban, both rust-belt and service-industry regions. In short, we might well consider NRW as a 1:5 scale model of the country.
There is also some symbolism involved in this election, as the in the 2005 state elections, CDU and FDP prevailed over SPD/Greens - presaging - and hastening - the downfall of Schröder's coalition in September of that year.
In the five years since then, CDU/FDP government led by Jürgen Rüttgers has been, for a CDU government, remarkably benign (perhaps in part due to the fact that NRW is the traditional center for what passes for a labor-oriented wing of the CDU). Migration issues were raised to Ministry level, While in Duisburg and Fail City, CDU mayors played a key role in building public acceptance for the construction of prominent Turkish-Islamic (DITIB) mosques.
At the beginning of the year, Rüttgers looked like a shoo-in. Merkel and Westerwelle had won their clear majority in the national elections, and the SPD had turned in a lackluster performance in the NRW municipal elections just a couple of months before. None of the inevitable goofs, breakdowns and gaffes that go with politics and governing had caused any more than a minor inconvenience. The smart money was on a renewed CDU/FDP mandate, with CDU/Greens being widely considered as the only remotely conceivable alternative.
And then the wheels came off.
In November, the brand-new coalition enacted a so-called "Growth Acceleration Act" containing numerous unfunded tax breaks. One particularly egregious provision was a reduction of VAT on hotel stays from 19% to 7%. This went over so badly with the electorate in general that Rüttgers and his FDP-copilot Andreas Pinkwart begged Merkel - unsuccessfully - to rescind this tax break.
Nor did it help when it came out in January that a hotel magnate had donated over 1 million to the FDP over the course of a year.
And then Guido Westerwelle started ranting about "late Roman decadence" after the Constitutional Court ruled the stringent Hartz IV welfare system unconstitutional.
So much for the FDP.
Then the CDU had to go shoot itself in the foot. Apparently, the NRW CDU was inviting corporations to "sponsor" their state party convention, with 20,000 buying you a space to set up your booth along with face time with Rüttgers.
For their part, SPD and Greens have both been running a professional, screwup-free campaign. The CDU has been trying to paint the SPD galleon figure, Hannelore Kraft, as planning to form a coalition with the Left Party - something she has firmly (and rather convincingly) denied.
Anyway, this is about when commentators started seeing an SPD/Greens coalition within reach.
Up to this point, the downside for Merkel was not so great. True, with NRW, the CDU/FDP coalition would lose its majority in the Bundesrat. That would make it more difficult for the coalition to enact certain legislation, including ambitious fiscal measures. Still, even without NRW the CDU would still participate in the governments of a (voting) majority of states - and Merkel demonstrated amply in the Grand Coalition that she can horse-trade with the best of them. And the upside for her would be that she could blame the loss on the FDP, cutting Westerwelle down to size.
Because it wouldn't be her fault.
And then came Greece.
The bailout is hugely unpopular (a trend helped along by Germany's trashiest newspaper, usually a reliable CDU ally). And state elections in Germany are also to a greater or lesser extent unofficial referendums on the performance of whatever coalition is in power at federal level. So it's no wonder she stalled.
And because she was unable to stall long enough, losing this election will be her fault.
A further casualty of a CDU loss in NRW would be moderation. As noted above, the NRW CDU is astonishingly enlightened by CDU standards. Now, some fear that a loss would be taken by the party as a signal that a moderate, open and relatively accepting course is not a path to electoral success. Which would strengthen the Roland Koch types within the party.
Neck and Neck
Right now, all the pundits are calling it "too close to call". The conservative FAZ even has SPD and CDU head to head at 37%, Greens at 10%, FDP 6% and the Left at 5% (MoE undisclosed).
This Sunday's election looks to be interesting indeed.