German Conservative Party wins state election in defeat of Scholz

BERLIN – Prime Minister Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats, in a regional election overshadowed by the war in Ukraine, hit a record low turnout on Sunday as the country’s most populous nation Germany goes to the polls.

The contest only involved legislative seats in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. But with the start of the campaign coinciding with the Russian invasion, the race was unusually dominated by national problems – especially the risks that a land war in Europe could spread. and worries about energy supplies.

Mr. Scholz has been increasingly criticized for deviating from his approach to assisting Ukraine in the war, which has become a common cause in Germany among many parties, and his party appears to have paid the price in the wake of the test. the first major election the party has faced since. took power less than six months ago.

Forecasts suggest that the incumbent Christian Conservatives are on an easy win and will likely take over as governor as head of the coalition government. They are expected to take nearly 36% of the vote compared with 27% for the Social Democrats and 18% for the Greens.

“It is a huge disappointment for the SPD,” said one political scientist, Uwe Jun of Trier University.

“Given these results,” he said, “the SPD has to realize that it is clearly not seen as the driving force of the federal government, but rather appears to be playing a more supportive role in the coalition at the moment. .”

Just a few days after the Russian invasion on February 24, Mr. Scholz Addressing the German Federal Parliament and promised an epochal change, while signaling greater spending on the German military. But since then, this prime minister has made many people like pull his heels about policies that will actually help Ukraine.

There had been weeks of debate over whether the German government would allow the export of heavy weapons before the Ministry of Defense finally announced the shipment of dozens of armored air defense systems.

Germany is also seen as wavering in punishing Russia for the invasion. Members of the European Union say Germany is trying to block decisions to boycott Russian energy imports, on which Germans are so dependent.

Mr. Scholz was also criticized for sending the foreign minister on a state visit to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, instead of going on his own.

A recent poll found that almost two-thirds of Germans do not see Mr Scholz as a strong leader, and from well-respected newspapers to Germany’s rowdy Bild, commentators have seen the results. Sunday’s election as a damning verdict on Mr. Scholz’s first six months in office. A headline in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper called the result “a vote of no confidence against the prime minister,” while Bild called it “a historic slap”.

Voter discontent does not appear to have affected one of Scholz’s coalition partners, the Greens. On Sunday, they won a big numerical victory in the previous election, improving their performance in 2017 by almost 12 percentage points. Mr. Scholz’s two most popular ministers are Greens, who appear to be driving much of the popular Ukraine policy in the coalition government. One of them, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, arrived in Kyiv last week.

The Liberal Democrats, the third coalition partner in the federal government, have not fared well in the polls, winning just under 6% of the state vote.

At 56%, voter participation is unusually low for a state election in Germany.

Professor Jun said: “It’s a test of people’s mood, it shows what people think about government work at the moment.

Voters gave the Christian Democratic Union, which lost the federal election following the retirement of Chancellor Angela Merkel, a major victory. It keeps conservatives in power in the industrial west, formerly the centerpiece of the Social Democratic Party, but it could signal a wave of change as voters go to the polls in some elections. another major state election in the coming years.

“CDU is back, our forward-looking process has been vindicated,” the party’s leader, Friedrich Merz, said on Twitter.

The election did not directly affect federal politics in Berlin, where Mr. Scholz has run a three-party coalition since December. However, support for the conservative government in the large western state only made it worse. added to Mr. Scholz’s pain as he tried to keep his government stable and his brand of Social Democracy strong.

Besides regional issues such as education, security and energy, the campaign also addressed Russia directly, with conservative party leaders accusing the Social Democrats of having close ties to Moscow. .

Home to a fifth of Germans and 12 million voters, North Rhine Westphalia is one of the most important states in the federation. Due to its diverse composition, it is also one of the most representative, with a long tradition of labor dominating the cities and more conservative strongholds in the countryside. It is home to much of Germany’s mining and manufacturing jobs and was in the hands of the Social Democrats for decades at the end of the last century.

The conservatives’ victory was the first time since 1962 that the CDU had secured two consecutive terms in the state. Hendrik Wüst took over as governor in October.

The conservatives’ victory comes after the Social Democrats’ battle last week in Schleswig-Holstein, a small northern state. Conservatives won a notable 42 percent of the vote in that state; The Social Democrats, which included a relatively unknown candidate, ended the night with just 16%.

But the stakes there differ not only because Schleswig-Holstein has one-sixth of the population as North Rhein-Westphalia. In addition, Daniel Günther, the extremely popular conservative governor, is a nationally known figure and has been credited with successfully responding to the pandemic.

None of the candidates vying to lead North Rhine Westphalia are well known outside of the state. The SPD is led by Thomas Kutschaty, a 53-year-old lawyer from Essen who served as the state attorney general in the previous Social Democratic government.

Given the nature of coalition-based politics, Sunday’s Conservative victory will lead to a Conservative government only if they can convince the Greens (or SPD) to form a coalition, leaving them out of control. not only the biggest winner in Sunday’s election but also the king.

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