Setback For Center-Left Party Puts Merkel Back in Pole Position for a Fourth Term

By James Carstensen | May 16, 2017 | 3:42 AM EDT

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union scored a major victory in North Rhine-Westphalia state on Sunday. (Photo: CDU/Laurence Chaperon)

Berlin (CNSNews.com) – Sunday’s state election results have pushed German Chancellor Angela Merkel a step closer to a fourth term of leadership, leaving her once-resurgent opponent Martin Schulz looking considerably weakened.

Nonetheless, a strong showing for the centrist Free Democrats (FDP) party, along with the populist anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party’s scraping in to claim representation in 13 out of 16 state parliaments, signals a changing political landscape in the lead up to the federal election.

Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) garnered 34.3 percent of the vote in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), wrestling control of the large industrial region away from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) which only managed to claim 30.6 percent.

The outcome is the SPD’s worst score in history for the state, and a sharp decline from its 2012 showing of 39.1 percent.

The center-left SPD governed the region, which boasts a large working class,  for 46 of the last 51 years, with the CDU only briefly in charge from 2005-2010.

The result was a serious blow for the party and its flagbearer Schulz ahead of the September general elections.

The Green party, currently the junior coalition partner to the SPD, also took a big hit, dropping from 11.4 percent in the last election to just 6.4 percent.

NRW state is considered an important indicator of the national mood. It is both Germany’s most populous state, accounting for more than one-fifth of voters, and also the last to go to the polls before the general election.

The CDU appears to have recovered from a period of intense criticism over Merkel’s “open door” refugee policy in 2015 and 2016. It has benefited from a slowing of the migrant influx – from 890,000 in 2015 to around 280,000 last year – thanks in part to neighboring countries closing borders and the E.U. deal with Turkey to stem the flow.

The government has also tightened its stance on immigration, speeding up the processing of asylum applications and stepping up deportations of rejected applicants. In a related move, it banned the wearing of the burqa full face veil in state jobs.

“This is a great day for North Rhine-Westphalia,” said the CDU’s main candidate for state premier, Armin Laschet. “We accomplished our two goals: defeating the SPD-Greens coalition and becoming the strongest party in the state.”

Schulz, who is looking to unseat Merkel as chancellor in September, took the news heavily, calling it “a whopping defeat.”

“It’s a tough day for the SPD and also for me personally, as I come from the state,” he told reporters on Monday.

But he kept a brave face, noting that, in neighboring France, “my friend Emmanuel Macron was at the bottom five months ago, and now he is president.”

Support for the SPD surged following the announcement of Schulz’s candidacy earlier this year, but the so-called “Schulz effect” has tapered off since.

A former president of the European Parliament who found support on the left and right, he had hoped that his push for “social justice” would resonate in a state that has lagged behind western Germany economically.

The CDU’s greater focus on security, however, appears to have done more to sway voters.

The SPD was criticized in NRW state for its handling of the mass groping of women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015. The state’s SPD interior minister also faced scrutiny for losing track of Anis Amri, the Tunisian man who was under watch in the state but disappeared and later rammed a truck into people enjoying Berlin’s Christmas market late last year, killing 12 people.

Karl-Rudolf Korte, politics professor at the University of Duisburg-Essen, said the SPD needed a new start quickly if it was to have any chance of winning in the fall.

“They need to develop ideas for the future that ignite enthusiasm and mobilize voters, not just on social justice.”

Meanwhile Marcus Pretzell, the regional head of the AfD, celebrated the party’s showing in the state, calling it “a real punch to the nose” of the SPD-Green coalition.

Yet, despite reaching the five percent threshold for state representation, the result was a far cry from the far-right party’s previous highs – 7.4 percent compared to peaks of up to 15 percent in previous elections in other states.

The party has struggled to retain support for its anti-immigration policies since Merkel adopted a stronger position on the issue. Its image has also suffered from infighting and scandals.

Alongside the small foothold gained by the AfD, the revival of the pro-business FDP party has raised the prospect that it may become a coalition partner with the CDU in NRW.

The FDP received 12.6 percent of the vote, after previously having failed in the previous election to cross the five-percent hurdle for representation in the state legislature.

Overall, votes remain divided enough that it is still unlikely for Merkel’s conservatives to command a majority in September’s general election. Unless its opts for a left-right coalition with the SPD, the CDU may need to form a deal with the centrists of the FDP.