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POLITICS

EXPLAINED: Why Sunday’s state parliament vote in NRW is important for German politics

People are going to the polls in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) on Sunday to vote in the state election, with many seeing this as a test for the federal government. We unpick the key players and likely outcomes.

State Premier Hendrik Wüst (L) and Thomas Kutschaty (R), North-Rhine Westphalia's SPD party's chairman. 
PIctured are the two leading candidates in North Rhine-Westphalia's state election: State Premier Hendrik Wüst (L) and Thomas Kutschaty (R), North-Rhine Westphalia's SPD party's chairman. John MACDOUGALL, Ina FASSBENDER / AFP / POOL

Sunday’s vote in North Rhine-Westphalia is the third state parliament election to take place since last year’s federal election. But it’s a very different ballgame to the previous votes in Saarland or Schleswig-Holstein, primarily due to the large number of people going to the polls: 13 million people are eligible to vote in the state, which is why it has been dubbed a “mini federal election” by some.

NRW is Germany’s most populous state and is therefore a political force to be reckoned with, meaning that the outcomes of Sunday’s state election could have consequences for Berlin.

What’s the current situation?
Christian Democrat Hendrik Wüst currently leads the state after taking over last year when Armin Laschet resigned as state premier following his unsuccessful federal election bid. The CDU is in a coalition with the liberal Free Democrats after replacing the SPD-Greens coalition five years ago.

There are currently 199 ministers and five parliamentary groups represented in the Landtag, or state parliament, which is elected for a five-year term. 

Is Wüst likely to hold on to the leadership?
It looks like it’s going to be a close race. The CDU and the Social Democrats are both polling at around 30 percent, with the CDU having a slight lead of two to four percentage points. Meanwhile, the FDP appears to have lost support.

The below table from DAWUM shows the results from recent polls.

table of German state election polls

Who are the main players?
The two leading candidates are 46-year-old Hendrik Wüst (CDU) and 53-year-old Thomas Kutschaty (SPD). Both have previous government experience, Wüst as minister of transport and Kutschaty as minister of justice. The liberal FDP candidate is Joachim Stamp, Mona Neubaur is standing for the Greens and Markus Wagner for the right-wing AfD.  

What were the main topics in the election campaign?
Covid-19 hasn’t gone away and the war in Ukraine has also featured heavily in the run-up to the election. Other subjects close to voters’ hearts include energy security amid the phasing out of coal and rising petrol and energy prices; climate change; education policy and affordable housing. 

The election campaign has been marked by the ongoing discussion about Germany delivering weapons to Ukraine and the so-called Mallorca affair also heated things up. Environment minister Ursula Heinen-Esser resigned at the beginning of April after it emerged the CDU politician had met with other cabinet members in Mallorca to celebrate her husband’s birthday last July – this was just days after Germany’s flood disaster began.

READ ALSO: Volunteer army rebuilds Germany’s flood-stricken towns

The FDP and the Greens, meanwhile, are concentrating on issues such as economic policy and climate protection.

What are the implications for Berlin?
There’s a lot at stake here, especially for the CDU and SPD. 

If the CDU were voted out of office in NRW, then the Union party would only have five out of 16 state premiers, while the SPD would lead a total of nine states, with one state head in NRW. 

But if the SPD loses, this could be a confirmation of a downward trend after their major defeat in the Schleswig-Holstein election, where they suffered their worst ever result in the state. This could then also be attributed to Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ politics. 

However, the CDU could ride on the momentum from their landslide win in Schleswig-Holstein and exert more pressure on the SPD with more confidence, even in opposition.

After performing well in Schleswig-Holstein, the Greens will also be expecting another success. This should increase the confidence of the party in Berlin and strengthen their position in the coalition. 

But the FDP – the smallest traffic light partner in the federal alliance – must expect to lose some government responsibility in NRW after losses in Schleswig-Holstein. 

And there could be a lot more at stake for the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party (AfD): they failed to get the 5 percent electoral threshold needed for representation in state parliament in Schleswig-Holstein and if they don’t get it in NRW either, this is likely to fuel unrest and in-fighting at the federal level, too. Polls, however, put them at a comfortable 8 percent. 

Further declines are expected for the Left with election polls making it look unlikely they will make it into the state parliament, after narrowly missing out five years ago.

READ ALSO: Four things the Schleswig-Holstein vote tells us about German politics

What do the polls predict?
According to a pre-election poll carried out by broadcaster ARD, the CDU stood at 30 percent with the SPD just behind at 28 percent. The Greens were lagging behind at 16 percent and the FDP at 8 percent.

Based on that poll, it’s not enough for the status quo – black and yellow or CDU and FDP – to continue. A coalition between CDU and SPD (red) would technically be possible, but is incredibly unlikely and it’s just enough for a black-green alliance but not quite enough for a red-green one.

Looking at the numbers, a three-party alliance is more likely. A Jamaica coalition of CDU, Greens and FDP is one option while a traffic light coalition of SPD, Greens and FDP is also not entirely out of the question. Deputy Minister President Stamp (FDP) has spoken out in favour of continuing the coalition with the CDU, but has not ruled out a traffic light combination.

The top candidates from the CDU, SPD, Greens and FDP are keeping all coalition options open and ruling out nothing except for cooperation with AfD. 

If we go by the polls, it’s possible that neither the CDU or the SPD will win enough votes to become the strongest political force. In that event, the decisions of the parties who would be needed to form a coalition, especially the Greens, would be key.

When do the results come out?
Polling stations are open until 6pm. The counting of the votes starts as soon as they close and exit polls are published at this point, too. The first projection based on interim results is expected around 6.30pm with projections becoming more precise over the course of the evening as more votes are counted.

If you want to see it all play out, you’re probably going to have to wait until at least the early hours of the morning. At the last election five years ago, the final preliminary outcome was announced around 4am the next day. The definitive final result is not published until it has been verified – this can take several days or weeks.

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CITIZENSHIP

German parliament to hold urgent debate on citizenship

Politicians will gather in the Bundestag on Thursday afternoon for an urgent session on Germany's planned changes to citizenship law.

German parliament to hold urgent debate on citizenship

According to information on the Bundestag website, the urgent discussion was scheduled on the request of the opposition CDU party, who have been fiercely critical of the planned reforms in recent days.

The debate, which is scheduled to start at 2:50pm and last an hour, will see MPs air their views on the government’s planned changes to citizenship law.

Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) is currently in the process of drafting a bill that will simplify and speed up the naturalisation process in Germany, which she said this week is “as good as done”.  

The law will end a ban on dual nationality for non-EU citizens, meaning people from places like India, the USA and the UK can naturalise as Germans without losing their current citizenship – or citizenships. 

It also foresees a dramatic reduction in the amount of time it takes to become eligible for German citizenship.

In future, people would be able to naturalise after five years of residence in the country rather than the current eight, while people who speak good German or fulfil other integration criteria could naturalise after three years rather than six.

Additionally, the Interior Ministry wants to grant automatic German citizenship to the children of foreign parents – provided their parents have been in the country at least five years – and remove language requirements for members of the guest-worker generation who want to become German. 

READ ALSO:

‘We don’t need reform’

High-profile politicians from the CDU have slammed the government’s plans to ease citizenship rules, with parliamentary leader Thorsten Frei describing the move as an attempt to “sell-off” German passports as a “junk commodity”.

“We don’t need reform,” Frei told public broadcaster ZDF. “There would no majority whatsoever in any party’s supporters for this change.”

Earlier this week, CDU leader Friedrich Merz had argued that expediting the naturalisation process would damage integration and allow people to immigrate into the benefits system more easily. 

“The CDU will not close its mind to a further modernisation of immigration law and the citizenship law of the Federal Republic of Germany,” Merz told a meeting of CDU and CSU MPs in Berlin on Tuesday.

“However, we also attach importance to the fact that the granting of citizenship takes place at the end of an integration process and not at the beginning of it.” 

The CDU and CSU have previously been vocal opponents of permitting dual nationality, arguing that holding more than one citizenship would prevent people from fully integrating into German life. 

Nevertheless, it remains unclear if the opposition will be able to block the legislation in any meaningful way.

If there aren’t any substantial changes to the core of the citizenship bill when the amendments are made, the Interior Ministry believes it won’t need to be put to a vote in the Bundesrat – the upper house where the CDU and CSU hold a majority.

Instead, the parties of the traffic-light coalition – the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) – would simply be able to vote it through in the Bundestag. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Could Germany’s conservatives block dual citizenship?

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