In response to the Merkel government’s decision to support a Greek bailout last week, voters in Germany’s western state North Rhine-Westphalia voted overwhelmingly against the chancellor’s ruling party, robbing her coalition of its majority in the upper house of parliament.
North Rhine-Westphalia held elections on Sunday. The state, with its capital at Düsseldorf, is the economic powerhouse of Germany, bordering on the Netherlands with close to eighteen million inhabitants. Boasting the industrial Ruhrgebiet, with over €541 billion, North Rhine-Westphalia is responsible for about 20 percent of German gross domestic product.
Germans at large have been skeptical of coming to Greece’s aid with Angela Merkel pushing for tougher sanctions that are meant to prevent a similar calamity from ever developing again. Her promises failed to persuade voters however. The Christian Democrats lost heavily in North Rhine-Westphalia, down from 89 seats in 2005 to 67 today.
The party’s foremost contenders, the Social Democrats, also lost seats: they went from 102 in 2000 to 74 in 2005 to 67 today. Neither major party holds a majority therefore, nor does Germany’s ruling coalition of Christian Democrats and liberals which now commands eighty seats in North Rhine-Westphalia’s legislature, eleven short of a majority.
The Greens were the election’s greatest winners, doubling their share of voters from 6.2 to a little over 12 percent to win 23 seats. With the Social Democrats, they are just one seat short of a majority.
It seems unlikely that either party will agree to a coalition with communist successor parties, including Die Linke. The far left enjoys support in East Germany but has never partaken in government in the western part of the country.
A grand coalition between Christian and Social Democrats is no less attractive; the latter risk further alienating left-wing voters if they agree to a coalition with the right.
The alternatives include an alliance of Green, liberals and Social Democrats. Such a coalition previously ruled the state of Brandenburg between 1990 and 1994. The other variant would see the conservatives, Greens and liberals working together as they have in Saarland since November of last year. Both coalitions might be plagued by infighting between the smaller parties, both vying for support with the majority partner.
At the federal level, Sunday’s election denies Chancellor Merkel and her coalition a majority in the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament that represents the sixteen different German states. North Rhine-Westphalia has six votes in the council. The ruling parties are now three votes short of a majority. For future legislation, the government will have to win support from states that are governed by other coalitions, such as Mecklenburg-Vorpommern or Hamburg. Both have three votes on the council and are respectively governed by alliances of Christian and Social Democrats and Christian Democrats and Greens.