BERLIN – Germany's most populous state holds an election Sunday, with pollsshowing good chances of victory for a center-left regionalgovernment that Chancellor Angela Merkel has sought to label asirresponsibly spendthrift. About 13.2 million people are eligible to vote for the statelegislature in North Rhine-Westphalia in western Germany, whichincludes Cologne, Dusseldorf and the industrial Ruhr region. Sunday's election is the third state-level vote this year. It comesa week after a regional coalition of Merkel's conservativeChristian Democrats and the pro-market Free Democrats — theparties that make up the national government — lost power inthe northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. It also follows setbacks for Merkel's austerity-led response to theeurozone debt crisis in French and Greek elections last weekend. |
North Rhine-Westphalia, a traditional center-left stronghold, isvoting three years ahead of schedule after its current minoritygovernment, made up of Germany's main national opposition parties,narrowly failed to get a budget passed in March. Opposition leaders declared that the vote would send an importantsignal ahead of national elections due in late 2013. Merkel said itoffered an opportunity for the region to elect a government thatwouldn't take on "ever more debt." While national polls show Germans backing Merkel's pro-austerityline in Europe, surveys suggest that the regional government ofSocial Democrats and Greens led by popular governor Hannelore Krafthas a good chance of emerging strengthened, with a majority in thestate legislature. Conservative challenger Norbert Roettgen, Merkel's federalenvironment minister, has had a lackluster and sometimesgaffe-prone campaign. He faced criticism for not committing himselfto stay in state-level politics and for saying on a televisionshow, in an apparent attempt at irony which backfired, that"regrettably" voters rather than his party would decide whether hebecame governor.
Roettgen irritated his party by declaring that Sunday's electionwould decide "whether Angela Merkel's course in Europe isstrengthened or whether it is weakened by the re-election of apro-debt government in Germany." Merkel said it was an importantstate election, "no more and no less." The struggling Free Democrats' main aim is to win the 5 percent ofvotes needed to retain their parliamentary seats, building on asurprisingly strong performance last weekend in Schleswig-Holstein. The upstart Pirate Party, which has surged in recent months with aplatform of near-total transparency and Internet freedom but lackspolicies on many issues — including the debt crisis —hopes to enter its fourth state legislature. That could complicatethe center-left's chances of winning a majority. While Germany's opposition will claim tail wind for next year'snational vote from a victory, Sunday's election — unlikeNorth Rhine-Westphalia's last vote in 2010 — won't change thenational balance of power. Two years ago, Merkel's coalition lost the state after five yearsin power there.
That erased the national government's majority inthe upper house of Parliament, which represents Germany's 16states, and its position there has since weakened further. Current national polls consistently show Merkel's conservatives asthe biggest party. However, they forecast a parliamentary majorityneither for her center-right coalition — which has becomenotorious for infighting on a wide range of policy issues —nor for the Social Democrats and Greens, who ran Germany from 1998to 2005. When the national election comes, Merkel's chances of holding on topower still look decent, though perhaps with a new coalitionpartner.
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