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Dusseldorf (Germany) (AFP) – Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD) suffered a landslide defeat in a key German regional election on Sunday, exit polls showed, in a damning verdict on its perceived weak response to the war in Ukraine.
The probable loss of the SPD in North Rhine-Westphalia would be a blow for Scholz, who has held the reins of Europe’s largest economy for less than six months.
Preliminary voting results in Germany’s most populous state showed the SPD at around 28%, with the conservative CDU far ahead with around 35%.
The result would be the worst ever seen by the SPD in the state, a thriving industrial hub home to some 13 million eligible voters and about a quarter of the population.
North Rhine-Westphalia, home to the major cities of Cologne, Bonn, Düsseldorf, Essen and Dortmund, was an SPD stronghold in the 1980s and 1990s but had been ruled by the CDU since its last election in 2017.
At the time, the CDU under Armin Laschet had won with around 33% of the vote, while the SPD finished with 31.2%.
Laschet then replaced Angela Merkel as CDU leader before losing to Scholz in the race to become chancellor last year.
The CDU in North Rhine-Westphalia is now led by moderate Hendrik Wuest, 46, who said he believed his party was ‘obviously the strongest force’ and had a mandate to form the next government regional.
Scholz had played a prominent role in the election campaign, but his involvement appears to have done nothing to help SPD candidate Thomas Kutschaty, 53.
The Social Democrats were also heavily beaten in another regional election last week, in the small northern state of Schleswig-Holstein.
In North Rhine-Westphalia, exit polls showed the Green Party at around 18%, almost triple its score in the last regional vote in 2017, when it took 6, 4%.
The liberal FDP was at around 5%, a sharp drop from its 2017 performance when it joined forces with the CDU to form the regional government – a formation that is no longer possible according to Sunday’s preliminary results.
At the federal level, Scholz’s party formed a government with the Greens and the FDP after winning the legislative elections last September.
The Greens have been seen as stronger than the SPD in their response to the war in Ukraine, with Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock now Germany’s most popular politicians.
Regional Green Party candidate Mona Neubaur saw the local result as a vote of confidence in her party’s performance at the federal level, crediting its leaders with “clarity and resolve in times of crisis.”
“The CDU is back”
Scholz, on the other hand, saw his grades plummet during the war in Ukraine, with critics accusing him of being reluctant to provide heavy weapons to help kyiv resist the Russian invasion.
To add to the SPD’s woes, Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht is currently caught in a firestorm of criticism for allowing her son to accompany her in a government helicopter en route for a family vacation.
SPD General Secretary Kevin Kuehnert said his party would seek talks with the Greens to build a coalition, similar to that at the federal level.
But given the scale of the SPD’s defeat, it seems unlikely that it can claim leadership of the region.
The SPD is the “big loser” of the election, said former CDU health minister Jens Spahn, and no party could claim a mandate to govern after such a “historically bad result”.
The win will be seen as a major boost for the CDU, relegated to opposition in last year’s elections after 16 years in power under Merkel and now led by veteran right-winger Friedrich Merz.
“The CDU is back,” Merz said on Sunday, hailing a “remarkable” result for Wuest but also a “mood test” nationwide.
© 2022 AFP