Germany’s bellwether regional election lays bare the coming post-Merkel political order

As the pioneering psychologist Carl Jung put it: “There is no birth of consciousness without pain.” Thus, lost in the jumble of the recent North Rhine-Westphalia regional election, clear, indelible patterns emerge that are likely to shape German politics for the next generation.

It is hard to overstate how important NRW is to Germany as a whole, amounting to the country’s California. Traditionally the economic powerhouse of Germany and the birthplace of its heavy industry, it is also the country’s most populous state. If NRW were a separate country, its €733 billion GDP would make its economy Europe’s sixth-largest, bigger than that of Sweden, Turkey, or Switzerland. So it is entirely safe to call the state’s regional election a mini-national referendum on the state of German politics.

Traditionally, NRW has been a Social Democratic Party stronghold, as the party has run the place for much of its 77-year postwar existence. However, with the general decline of heavy industry, NRW has become more competitive politically, with the center-right Christian Democratic Union, the other “volkspartei” (the two dominant post-1945 political parties) currently running the region. Thus, given its size, economic importance, and political competitiveness, NRW is as close as we are likely to get to a national litmus test of the state of play in German politics.

The results of last weekend’s regional election are singular in that they underscore and further the seismic political trends that are already slowly remaking post-1945 German politics.

First, the results continued the trend of Germany moving away from the old two-party SPD-CDU system toward a multiparty free-for-all. Together, the two old volkspartei managed only 63 percent of the vote, forcing either into coalition with the kingmaker Greens, who tripled their regional vote to 18 percent. Along with the current federal “traffic-light” coalition (red for the SPD, yellow for the economically liberal Free Democratic Party, and the Greens), the new era is bound to be one of intricate coalition politics, moving away from the old system of two-party domination. In other words, Germany is becoming more like the Netherlands and less like the US in terms of its politics.

Second, the historically dominant CDU continues to recover from its near-death experience after being led by the hapless chancellor-candidate Armin Laschet during the last national election in September last year. With the able and energetic Friedrich Merz now at the helm, the CDU have righted the ship in both the NRW contest and in an earlier regional election in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany’s most northerly state. Taking a leading 36 percent of the NRW vote, CDU state premier Hendrik Wuest is likely to continue in power, in coalition with the Greens (also the ruling political configuration that came out of the Schleswig-Holstein vote).

Third, the Greens continue their rise, on course over time to supplant the old SPD itself as the dominant center-left party in the German political landscape. Dynamically led by two of the country’s most popular politicians, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and (especially) Economics Minister Robert Habeck, the Greens are the only member of the national traffic-light coalition having any regional political success.

Fourth, it increasingly looks as if Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s September 2021 win was a fluke. The German media had (rightly) eviscerated both Laschet and Baerbock, the other two leading chancellor-candidates, and had not yet gotten around to really scrutinizing Scholz. As the last man standing, and despite the SPD’s general downward trajectory, he managed to scrape together a victory that now seems merely an aberration, as the SPD’s decades-long slide in the polls has resumed. Despite Scholz personally campaigning, the SPD’s 27 percent vote share in NRW was its worst showing there in postwar history, as had also been the case in the Schleswig-Holstein election.

The issue that is lifting the Greens and deflating the SPD is one and the same: Germany’s conduct regarding the war in Ukraine. While Scholz was given good marks for his decisive if abrupt moves to end Angela Merkel’s ruinous almost two-decade holiday from history (by significantly agreeing to raise German defense spending to non-laughable levels, to diversify its energy imports and to spend an extra €100 billion on modernizing its decrepit ammunition stocks), he has been lambasted for his hesitancy since. While the core Anglosphere countries (US, UK, Canada, Australia) have decisively come to the aid of Kyiv, Germany has only grudgingly gone along with heavy arms transfers, and gained none of the policy credit.

Instead, Scholz’s hesitancy has started a broader strategic postmortem in the German and international press on Ostpolitik, the SPD’s failed signature postwar policy based on the belief that increased trade with Russia would over time cool the fires of revanchism. As a leading proponent of Ostpolitik right up to February, Scholz is on the back foot politically, even as he was finance minister in the last sleepy Merkel government.

The contrast with the forceful, Wilsonian liberal internationalism of the Greens is stark, and is greatly playing to the younger party’s advantage. The failure of German foreign policy over the past generation is a millstone likely to sink Scholz over time, as well as hasten the birth of a new German politics. 

This post was originally published in Arab News.

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