Chancellor Merkel’s party saved its biggest punch for the regional parliamentary election in North Rhine-Westphalia, delivering a humiliating blow to its biggest rival, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and its leader Martin Schulz.
After back-to-back victories in the smaller Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein elections this year, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) on Sunday took control of Germany’s most populous state from the Social Democrats, winning 33 percent of the votes and pushing them out of power in the regional parliament for only the second time in 50 years.
“This was a whopping defeat,” Mr. Schulz told reporters. “It’s a tough day for the SPD and also for me personally, as I come from the state.”
The Christian Democrats’ victory in North Rhine-Westphalia, home to more than one fifth of German voters and a stronghold of their center-left rival, adds to their momentum and will further boost Ms. Merkel, one of Europe’s most powerful leaders, who is seeking a fourth term. The state election could serve as a prelude to the national vote on September 24.
The CDU mounted a late rally, relying heavily on appearances by the chancellor and playing up her reputation as a crisis manager and an anchor of stability in Europe. Ms. Merkel attacked the state government for investing too little in education and infrastructure and for being soft on crime, including the mass sexual assaults on women in Cologne.
For Mr. Schulz, the loss in North Rhine-Westphalia, or NRW, is a disastrous third-straight defeat in state elections since the 61-year-old former European Parliament president was nominated party chairman in January. At his coronation, he told party members to thunderous applause: “This year, I want to win elections first in Saarland, then in Schleswig-Holstein and NRW and finally in the federal parliament.” Now he may want to eat those words.
“This was a whopping defeat.”
Mr. Schulz helped raise the popularity of the SPD, which briefly surpassed the CDU in polls. But the hype over his nomination, the so-called “Schulz effect,” faded quickly after the party lost votes to the CDU in Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein. And it vanished completely after the crushing defeat on Sunday in North Rhine-Westphalia. Struggling for explanations, he said: “I’ve been head of the SPD for not even 100 days – I’m not a magician.”
The SPD won 31.4 percent of the votes, down from 39.1 percent in 2012. That is the party’s worst showing in the industrial belt since World War II and is certain to trigger an intense debate over its federal election campaign, which until now has focused on income equality and helping those who feel left behind in Germany’s economic boom.
Hannelore Kraft, the SPD state premier in NRW, admitted she may have made a mistake in asking Mr. Schulz not to champion the party’s federal campaign issues in the regional election. Polls conducted by ARD showed that many voters were, and remain, in the dark about the SPD chancellor candidate’s stances, especially on social equality. Mr. Schulz conceded in an interview that he will need to make his positions “more concrete” to voters.
Ms. Kraft, in office since 2010 and once seen as the SPD’s answer to Ms. Merkel, took responsibility for keeping Mr. Schulz on the sidelines, promptly announcing her resignation as regional and deputy national party leader.
The NRW election has sent other signals ahead of the federal election. The Free Democratic Party (FDP) celebrated its biggest victory ever in the state, coming in third with 12.6 percent, up 4 percent, under the leadership of its energetic leader Christian Lindner. The pro-business party could well become a coalition partner with the CDU in North Rhine-Westphalia and, with the momentum from its strong showing in Schleswig-Holstein, clear the 5-percent hurdle in the elections this fall and reenter the federal parliament.
The SPD’s Green coalition partner slumped to 6.2 percent from more than 11.4 percent in the previous election. The party may have shot itself in the foot after recently saying it was not interested in coalitions with the CDU or FDP.
The right-wing Alternative for Germany won 7.3 percent of the votes and the right for representation in the NRW parliament for the first time. The populist party is now in 13 of Germany’s 16 states. But it has faded in recent months, suffering from internal battles and struggling to retain support for its anti-immigration policies, ever since Ms. Merkel has taken a stronger position on migrants. After polling as high as 13 percent in NRW, the AfD failed to achieve its target of 10 percent.
But the party may have been successful in encouraging more Germans to vote. Turnout was sharply up at 65.5 percent, spurred by concerns among many voters over rising populism in Germany and across Europe.
A new Emnid survey shows that the CDU and its smaller Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, would win 37 percent of the votes, compared to the SPD at 27 percent, if the federal elections were held today.
John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org