Social Democrats Face Crucial Test in North Rhine-Westphalia

If the party can’t win in its industrial heartland, there is little hope for the federal elections in September.

German Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz campaigns with Hannelore Kraft, the prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, in Mülheim, May 6
German Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz campaigns with Hannelore Kraft, the prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, in Mülheim, May 6 (NRWSPD)

After losing two state elections in as many months, Germany’s Social Democrats are desperate for a victory in North Rhine-Westphalia. A defeat there, in what is Germany’s industrial powerhouse and the heartland of social democracy, would be terrible for morale going into the federal elections in September.

Martin Schulz, the party leader, needs a win to shore up his leadership. The Social Democrats have gone up in the polls since he took over in January, but this newfound popularity has yet to turn into concrete victories.

Voters in Schleswig-Holstein this weekend switched from the left to the right. The ruling Social Democrats and Greens lost seats; the Christian Democrats and liberal Free Democrats gained. They can now form a state government.

The eulogies of Angela Merkel’s seventeen-year chancellorship were already written when Schulz entered the stage, yet she keeps winning elections.

In Saarland, her party expanded its plurality in March, winning almost an absolute majority in the state legislature. The Social Democrats underperformed. The two are likely to continue their grand coalition in the border province, but Schulz would have preferred the Social Democrats to be the senior partner for once.

Politics is local

In both elections, local factors may have outweighed national issues.

In Schleswig-Holstein, the incumbent Social Democratic prime minister rubbed many voters the wrong way when he talked about his marital difficulties with a tabloid newspaper.

In Saarland, the Social Democratic Party leader refused to rule out a coalition with the formerly communist Die Linke if it meant keeping the Christian Democrats out of power. That prompted centrist voters to switch sides.

Crucial test

It should be easier to separate the local from the national in North Rhine-Westphalia next week, which will be an altogether more consequential election.

It is much larger than Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein: the single largest state of Germany, in fact, with over a fifth of its population. It has four of Germany’s ten largest cities, major industries and a sizable agricultural sector.

It has been governed by the Social Democrats and Greens since 2010 under a popular state prime minister, Hannelore Kraft. Before Schulz, who spent almost his entire career in Brussels, switched to national politics, Kraft was considered her party’s best hope of recapturing the chancellorship. She may yet be.

Most polls have put North Rhine-Westphalia’s Social Democrats in the lead with up to 40 percent support. They got 39 percent in 2012. But the Christian Democrats are gaining on them. Two surveys in the last two months have put the parties neck and neck.