Handelsblatt Explains

Why North Rhine-Westphalia is a National Bellwether

Hochofen 4 bei ThyssenKrupp wird abgerissen
When the steel left, so did the people. The industrial Ruhr region is undergoing a transformation. Source: Roland Weihrauch/DPA

Political scientists are constantly debating whether elections in Germany’s 16 federal states are harbingers of national trends. Some say these ballots reflect local issues and personalities; others say they signal voters’ preferences for the general election. In the case of North-Rhine Westphalia, however, most agree its election on Sunday could change the race for German chancellor, come September 24.

Not only is North Rhine-Westphalia, commonly abbreviated to NRW, the last ballot before the general election; it also plays a special role in German politics. Home to one in every five Germans, it is the most populous state. Home to the country’s traditional industry and rust belt, it is also the base of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) who have been in power in the state for 45 out of the last 50 years. And home to Martin Schulz, the SPD’s candidate to replace Angela Merkel as chancellor, it is also, well, his home. If the Social Democrats were to lose there on Sunday, their hopes for victory in September could dissolve.

Historically, the state consists of two culturally distinct regions: the northern part of the Rhineland and Westphalia. Rhinelanders like to trace their roots back to the ancient tribe of the Franks, Westphalians to that of the Saxons. During the Middle Ages, both regions contained many principalities but belonged to the Holy Roman Empire. After the Reformation, parts of Westphalia became Protestant, while the Rhineland stayed overwhelmingly Catholic, which is why it still today celebrates Germany’s most boisterous carnival. West of the Rhine, the region became French under Napoleon but was later taken over by Prussia, which was dissolved in 1945.

If the Social Democrats were to lose on Sunday, their hopes for victory in September could dissolve.

After World War II both regions, along with the rest of northwestern Germany, were in the British zone. The British then combined the Rhineland and Westphalia into one political state for the first time. At the time, the state was considered the most strategically important, because it included the region along the river Ruhr, where Germany’s industrial might – from Krupp steel to coal – was concentrated. That is also why the region has always had the most blue-collar voters, and hence the lefty politics.

But the decline of mining and steel production since the 1970s has hit the region hard. Today, parts of Gelsenkirchen and Duisburg look like third-world cities, with deserted factories and abandoned stores. NRW is still home to one third of Germany’s blue-chip companies, including Bayer and ThyssenKrupp, and the biggest contributor to national economic output. But gone are the days of labor-intensive manufacturing jobs, as automated plants replace metal bashers.

Although the number of unemployed has dropped over the past six years – thanks to the economic strength of Germany as a whole – the unemployment rate, at 7.6 percent, is still higher than national rate of 6.0 percent. Poverty is on the rise – up to 17.5 percent in 2016 from 15.4 percent just six year ago.

SPD-Wahlkampf NRW
Martin Schulz and Hannelore Kraft have a lot in common and a lot of pressure to win votes. Source: Marcel Kusch/DPA

NRW also looks bad in crime. With 8,600 crimes per 100,000 inhabitants, it ranks second only to Saxony-Anhalt, in the formerly communist east. NRW also twice made negative international headlines last year. During the 2015-2016 New Year’s Eve parties in Cologne, North African men sexually assaulted large numbers of women. And NRW’s police lost track of a Tunisian man, Anis Amri, whom they were monitoring. In December, the terrorist plowed a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 and injuring 50.

Nonetheless, the governing Social Democrats are pinning their hopes on Hannelore Kraft, the state premier. Like Mr. Schulz, she is down to earth and from humble origins, the daughter of a streetcar driver and a ticket inspector. Ms. Kraft, whose name translates as “strength,” has crafted an image as a woman of the people rather than as a member of the political elite, even though she has a degree in economics and previously worked as a consultant. She still lives in her hometown, Mühlheim an der Ruhr, with her husband Udo, an electrician.

But Ms. Kraft appears tired after seven years at the helm, and her popularity has dipped. Her challenger, Armin Laschet of the center-right Christian Democrats led nationally by Ms. Merkel, may not be a charismatic speaker but he has caught the ear of many NRW supporters. He has been pounding away at the state premier  on issues ranging from security, education and the economy to families and even traffic. In this he has the support of Ms. Merkel, who recently poked fun at NRW’s chronically plugged autobahns: “When you know how far it is from here to the moon, then you know how many kilometers of traffic jams there are in NRW each year.”

In a dramatic catch-up, the Christian Democrats have now drawn even with the Social Democrats in NRW and in one poll, by the public broadcaster ZDF, are even ahead, at 32 percent to the SPD’s 31 percent. Such a result on Sunday would devastate whatever “momentum” Mr. Schulz has left after his surprise coronation as chancellor candidate earlier this year. Since then, the Social Democrats have lost two state elections. Now they must defend their stronghold to have a chance against Ms. Merkel in September.

John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the editor: blau@handelsblatt.com

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