Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Germany: State election defeat hamstrings federal government

Germany’s ruling centre-right coalition suffered a double defeat on May 9, when it lost its ruling majority in an important state election in North-Rhine Westphalia. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) scored its lowest ever vote in the state, dropping 14 points to only 34.6 percent, on a par with the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) who slipped to 34.5 percent. 

Support for the arch-neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) – the CDU’s coalition partners on both a state and federal level – stagnated at 6.8 percent, while the Greens emerged as the big winners, doubling their vote to 12.1 percent.

The far-left party Die Linke also entered state parliament for the first time, winning 5.6 percent – an impressive achievement for what is possibly their most left-wing state branch, which has called for nationalising banks and other utilities and the legalising of cannabis.

North-Rhine Westphalia - Germany’s traditional industrial heartland and most populous state with 18 million inhabitants - is widely regarded as indicative of politics on a national level and currently has an unemployment rate of over 10 percent.

While threatened public spending cuts by the CDU played a part in the election result, the campaign was also marked by significant public opposition to the proposed bail-out of the Greek economy, and only 59 percent of voters bothered to turn-out.

The electoral defeat means that the CDU and FPD now lose their majority in the Bundesrat - Germany’s parliamentary upper house that includes representatives of state governments – kyboshing a government proposal to cut income taxes by 16 billion euros from 2012 and effectively hamstringing a government whose popularity has been slipping away fast.

The state Green party leader described the result as “the beginning of the end” for Merkel’s government, while the SPD views the result as a victory and evidence of their resurgence after several years of near-terminal decline across Germany.

There is still no clear winner in North-Rhine Westphalia, however, and who will form government is uncertain. One option is a “grand coalition” between the SPD and CDU, while another is a rather unlikely SPD-Green-Die Linke coalition. 

While SPD state leader Hannelore Kraft has not ruled out working with Die Linke in order to form government, many leading SPD members hold a visceral hatred of the “communists” in Die Linke, and will oppose such a move.

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