News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - City / Municipality / Region Chances and Challenges in North Rhine-Westphalia

What to expect from the upcoming elections in Germany’s biggest state



Andreas Thomsen,

Election decision aid app (Wahl-O-Mat) for the 2022 state election in North Rhine-Westphalia. Photo: picture alliance / Flashpic | Jens Krick

The most densely populated state in Germany, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), is often referred to in the media to as the “beating heart of social democracy”. The saying dates back to Herbert Wehner of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), who was in fact referring to the city of Dortmund. The retrospective application of the term to the entire state is actually only partially accurate.

Andreas Thomsen is the Deputy Head of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Department of Regional Coordination in Berlin. 

Translated by Michael Dorrity and Louise Pain for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

Until the 1960s, the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU), constituted the strongest political power in the country and, with the exception of two years, also led the state governments in NRW for two decades from 1946 to 1966. What followed was an almost 20-year period during which the two major parties were consistently close in terms of their election results, but the SPD led the respective state governments. It was not until Johannes Rau’s third election victory in 1985 that the SPD was able to gain a significant lead over the CDU and consequently keep them — albeit it with consistently declining election results — at a distance until 2005.

In 2005, the most pivotal year for the mass protests against the Agenda 2010 reforms introduced by the SPD–Green federal government, Minister President Steinbrück ultimately lost the state once again to the CDU and Jürgen Rüttgers. Since 2005, state elections in NRW have almost always yielded changing majorities. In 2010, the state government was led by the SPD under Hannelore Kraft, after which the baton was passed to the CDU and Armin Laschet, who in the course of his 2021 candidacy for the chancellorship handed over the minister president’s office to Hendrik Wüst.

During the most recent state elections on 14 May 2017, the CDU narrowly succeeded in becoming the strongest party with 33 percent, overtaking the SPD, which received 31.2 percent of the vote. Together with the significantly bolstered Free Democratic Party (FDP), who had attained a result of 12.6 percent, they formed a black-yellow coalition under Minister President Armin Laschet. The Greens achieved a fairly weak result of a mere 6.4 percent, and Die Linke very narrowly missed out on entering the state parliament, the Landtag, with only 4.9 percent. The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) became the fourth-strongest party in NRW’s state parliament, with 7.4 percent.

In the 2021 federal elections, both the SPD (29.1 percent) and the CDU (26 percent) came in below the 30-percent mark in NRW, but the SPD came in well ahead of the CDU. The Greens did extremely well, attaining 16 percent, while Die Linke performed somewhat more poorly than in the 2017 state elections (3.7 percent). The FDP (11.4 percent) and AfD (7.3 percent) both achieved similar results as they had in the state elections.

With view to the upcoming state elections, scheduled for 15 May, polls conducted in April predict a neck-and-neck race between the SPD and CDU, with each party predicted to attain roughly 30 percent of the vote. Considerable gains are predicted for the Greens, and stable results for the AfD.

Leaders of the Pack

The CDU, which has held power until now, takes to the race with its state chairman and Minister President Hendrik Wüst as its front-running candidate. Wüst is the former general secretary of the state party and has been a member of the Landtag since 2005. Most recently, he was NRW’s Minister for Transport from 2017 to 2021. He stepped down from his post as general secretary in 2010 in the wake of the “Rent-a-Rüttgers affair”, during which Wüst and then-Minister President Jürgen Rüttgers offered to appear at meetings and photo opportunities in exchange for payment. Wüst took political responsibility for the events.

As his main contender, the SPD are sending Thomas Kutschaty into the ring. Kutschaty was State Minister of Justice from 2010 to 2017 and has also been a member of the Landtag since 2005, as well as chairman of the parliamentary group since 2018 and the SPD’s chairman in NRW since March 2021.

Previous state elections have indicated an increase in the influence exerted by leading candidates on election results. In all eastern German federal states, as well as in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Wuerttemberg, the party to which the minister president belonged was in charge — in some cases by a considerable margin.

A demoscopic evaluation of approval ratings and levels of public familiarity from polls conducted at the beginning of 2022 appear to confirm this. They show that since becoming state party leader of the CDU and minister president of NRW, Wüst’s approval ratings and level of public familiarity have significantly improved.

What Do Voters Care About?

Four topics proved electorally decisive in 2017: social justice (46 percent), economy and labour (40 percent), schools and education (31 percent), and domestic security (21 percent). In the run-up to the 2022 state elections, things look very different. The four main political issues are now the COVID crisis (35 percent), schools and education (22 percent), mobility and traffic (20 percent), and environmental protection/climate change (17 percent). Social justice, which ranked among the most electorally decisive topics of 2017, has slipped to sixth place, with only eight percent. Housing and rent are in eighth place with seven percent.

It is remarkable that education and training policy represents a constant among the most significant topics in NRWs state elections. The topic had already proved electorally decisive in the course of the 2010 state election campaign. Moreover, educational policy proves to be a good and indeed illustrative topic for progressive parties and candidacies of every political persuasion.

That the CDU has clung to the three-tiered school system and in principle also the half-day school set-up can be challenged and brought into question by a series of reform proposals of varying radicalness — which are supported by international and domestic German experiences, as well as the results of academic research. All-day interdenominational schools are among the most catchy and crude of these ideas. Die Linke has additionally taken the position of proposing “schools without grades”, while the FDP placed particular emphasis on the need to bring schools into then digital era, although they are also interested in bolstering all-day schools. The party suffers, however, from the handicap that it was responsible for appointing Yvonne Gebauer as the relevant minister during the last legislative period.

The third and fourth most electorally decisive state political topics are mobility/traffic and environmental protection/climate change, which also happen to be closely connected. The subject of mobility and traffic is, however, not a new addition to the list of top topics for state elections in NRW. The topic already ranked highly in the 2017 state elections, though at that time it was referred to as “traffic and congestion”.

The disputes around the topic touch in part on extremely polemic and symbolically highly charged issues. When it comes to the energy transition in NRW, the main issue is the future of or indeed cessation of open pit brown coal mining. The battles over the Hambach Forest are still vividly remembered. Time and again, not least in NRW, energy transition has raised the issue of jobs in energy-intensive industrial sectors, and the combined issue of mobility and traffic makes commuters, the price of fuel, and the expansion of public transport infrastructure a focal point of debates.

Issues of domestic security — which both the AfD and the CDU prioritize in their electoral campaigns — have thus far failed to play a particularly significant role among the most electorally decisive topics. In the past, so-called domestic security consistently provided a welcome vehicle through which parties on the right or centre-right could mobilize their core constituencies and polarize them against the progressive agenda. Nevertheless, this tenuous situation will not play a particularly important role for the AfD in 2022 — the topic is too central to its brand image.

It is difficult to say what degree of influence will be exerted on state elections by the changed international and national security situation since Russia launched its war of aggression against Ukraine. But the event is bound to have an influence on federal political trends, which consistently have both positive and negative effects on state elections.

The Pandemic and the Chancellorship

One peculiarity of the state elections in NRW is obviously that the current minister president, Hendrik Wüst, has only been in office for a very short time. His predecessor was the CDU’s candidate for the chancellorship Armin Laschet, who ended up being short on both luck and success.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on the entire political process in Germany in recent months. The debates surrounding the CDU candidacy for the chancellorship — in particular between Bavarian Minister President Markus Söder and Armin Laschet — were especially impacted by the question of how the pandemic should be handled. The key role that fell to state minister presidents with regard to this issue proved to be an advantage for them against competitors such as Friedrich Merz or Norbert Röttgen.

Particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, Söder took a rather restrictive stance, while Laschet appeared more hesitant to defend or even enact hard social distancing measures at all. This attitude allowed Laschet to establish — or continue to keep — distance between himself and Chancellor Merkel. The time of the pandemic constituted for both minister presidents a balancing act between enforcing a strict position of law and order and that of opportunistic discourses pertaining to personal responsibility and freedom. It was difficult to maintain clear and consistent lines, as immediate decisions had to be made, and for many issues there were also immediate consequences.

The decision regarding the candidacy for the chancellorship between the heads of the CDU and the CSU eventually morphed into a curious political thriller in which Laschet was able to prevail, only to ultimately lose the fight for the chancellorship. Söder has since been fully committed to a second attempt in the next federal election, which is due to take place in 2025. One key prerequisite to his success will be the 2023 Bavarian state election.

At no point did Söder have any interest in a Laschet chancellorship and thus continued — undoubtedly with some caution — to undermine Laschet’s authority. In particular, the image of a decisive crisis manager that was intended to characterize Laschet’s campaign was damaged in the ongoing controversy, which also happened to take place against the backdrop of the pandemic. His campaign was ultimately ruined in July 2021 when he laughed in front of the TV cameras during a visit to the Ahr Valley, which had been hit by catastrophic flooding. In the wake of this, the image of a man of action and control in times of crisis was no longer tenable.

Armin Laschet’s pyrrhic victory in the quest for the chancellorship candidacy and his subsequent defeat at the federal elections may well prove advantageous for Hendrik Wüst. Based on these preliminary rounds, it may well be easier for him to — among other things — step out of the shadow of his predecessor and gain greater notoriety and higher approval ratings than would have been possible under different circumstances. His surprisingly fast improvement in the personality polls over the past few weeks certainly points in that direction.

A Traffic-Light Coalition for NRW?

Following the federal elections and the formation of the first “traffic-light coalition” consisting of the SPD, the Greens, and the FDP, the new federal government does not have anywhere near a majority in the Bundesrat, the federal council in which all 16 German states are represented. Only the four votes of the traffic-light coalition from Rhineland-Palatinate and the three votes of the red-green coalition in Hamburg are — formally speaking — on the side of the federal government.

There is no governmental constellation in NRW that could lead to any substantial change in the majority structure in the Bundesrat. However, there are several states that are viewed as “neutral states” in the Bundesrat and that frequently abstain from voting. It is in these states that the CDU forms coalitions at the federal level with one or more parties from the traffic-light coalition. In point of fact, these are all states where the CDU governs, including NRW with its black-yellow coalition. Only Bavaria, where the CSU forms a government with the Free Voters, can be seen as a genuine opposition state in the Bundesrat.

The six Bundesrat votes held by NRW are thus of significantly greater importance. Looking to the Bundesrat and federal politics, the traffic light parties — in particular the SPD and the Greens — must therefore have a spirited interest in either forming a traffic-light coalition or, if elections results allow it, a red-green coalition in NRW. The fact that the CDU in NRW pays special attention to their coalition partner, the FDP, likely indicates that the Union parties have also understood the situation.

The election results will certainly allow for the formation of a traffic light coalition and could at the same time facilitate the continuation of the existing coalition. Even if the CDU were to become the strongest party, the relevant federal political pressure could for these reasons lead to the formation of a traffic light coalition under the leadership of the SPD. Everything would depend on the conduct of the FDP.

Tough Times for the Left

Along with Bavaria, NRW was one of the centres of the Electoral Alternative or the Labour and Social Justice – The Electoral Alternative (WASG), which merged with the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) to form Die Linke. The 2005 state elections played a decisive role in this, as both the Electoral Alternative and the PDS stood for election. The results provided neither party entry to the state parliament, though the WASG achieved much better results than the PDS. The SPD, on the other hand, lost this crucial state election by a significant margin, due in large part to the influence of the Agenda 2010 reforms and the social protests surrounding them, ultimately enabling the CDU to take over the state government.

An immediate consequence of the 2005 state elections was also the announcement of early elections to the Bundestag by the incumbent red-green government headed by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The PDS and WASG ran together in this federal election and succeeded in reintroducing a significantly strengthened PDS into the Bundestag — now as a parliamentary group. During the 2010 state elections, Die Linke achieved its (first and until that point only) entry into the state parliament in NRW. The outcome of the 2010 election was the formation of a minority government under Hannelore Kraft. This only lasted until 2012, however, because the budget of the state government was rejected in the state parliament, and it became necessary to hold new elections.

The 2012 state elections caused a serious setback for Die Linke who, with only 2.5 percent, were behind even the joint results of the WASG and the PDS in 2005. In the 2017 state election, a clear improvement in the election results could once again be observed. Although Die Linke narrowly missed gaining a place in the state parliament with only 4.9 percent of the vote, the losses it sustained in 2012 were almost entirely recuperated.

The electoral defeat of Die Linke in 2012 is particularly noteworthy because the minority government of the SPD and the Greens basically had its existence (or indeed survival) insured by Die Linke’s toleration on key issues. The rejection of a particular section of the budget submitted by the state government — which was ultimately seen as a rejection and thus failure of the overall budget — was what triggered the dissolution of the state parliament and the early new election. The rejection in question was enacted with all of Die Linke’s votes in the Landtag, and it was this voting behaviour that essentially forced new elections.

The conflicts within Die Linke about the party’s political trends and directions were waged with particular ferocity in the North Rhine-Westphalian state party and have left deep scars. By 2018 at the latest, these conflicts were remoulded and further exacerbated by the formation of Aufstehen (“Stand Up”), a new political constellation which, as a “collective movement”, was intended to unite people across party lines, as well as politically active people with no party affiliation. This political experiment was primarily promoted by party icons Sahra Wagenknecht and Oskar Lafontaine. In 2018 and 2019, the pair devised a joint political strategy, which provoked somewhat of a stir and fierce debates — primarily on the left.

The state party often gives the impression of being plagued by a considerable degree of internal conflict and frequently makes it difficult for new members to become actively involved. In terms of the wider public, the ongoing conflict remains a serious obstacle to the party achieving good election results and productive party evolution.

Even if the 2012 state election results were an outlier that could have been caused by a number of different factors, and the 2010 and 2017 results are therefore more indicative of Die Linke’s actual potential, the 2022 state elections in NRW will also be a tough round of elections for the party. The federal political trend so soon after the federal election is unfavourable, and social issues such as rent and housing are not high on the political agenda. The impression of a certain degree of peace and unity within the state association, dedicated leaders, and organizational focus are as much in the party’s best interest as the fact that in this state election the party can offer a constructive political force and no longer categorically rejects the idea of participating in a new state government. However, these advantages are very likely to be offset and overshadowed by a federal trend for Die Linke that has become even more negative since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.