BERLIN – Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats, in a regional election overshadowed by the war in Ukraine, scored record-low vote percentages on Sunday as Germany’s most populous state went to the polls.
The contest involved only legislative seats in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. But with the campaign’s start coinciding with the Russian invasion, the race was unusually dominated by national issues – in particular, the risks that the European land war might spread and the worry about energy supplies.
Mr. Scholz has been increasingly criticized for dithering in his approach to supporting Ukraine in the war, which has become a popular cause in Germany across several parties, and his party appears to have paid a price in the first major electoral test it has faced since taking power less than six months ago.
Projections showed the incumbent Christian Conservatives easing to a win and likely the governorship as the head of a coalition government. They were expected to take close to 36 percent of the vote versus less than 27 percent for the Social Democrats and 18 percent for the Greens.
“It’s a huge disappointment for the SPD,” said one political scientist, Uwe Jun of Trier University.
“Given these results,” he said, “the SPD must realize that it is obviously not perceived as the driving force of the federal government, but that it seems to be playing more of a supporting role in the coalition at the moment.”
Just days after Russia invaded on Feb. 24, Mr. Scholz addressed the German federal parliament and promised an epochal change, and signaled more spending on the Germany military. But since then the chancellor has struck many people as dragging his heels on policies that would actually help Ukraine.
There were 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 was also seen as wavering on punishing Russia over the invasion. Fellow members of the European Union said Germany was trying to block decisions to boycott Russian energy imports, on which Germans are heavily dependent.
Mr. Scholz was also criticized for sending his foreign minister on a state visit to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, instead of going himself.
A recent poll found that nearly two-thirds of Germans do not consider Mr. Scholz is a strong leader, and from respected broadsheets to Germany’s noisy tabloid Bild, commentators took the result of Sunday’s election as a damning verdict on Mr. Scholz’s first six months in office. A headline in the Süddeutsche Zeitung called the outcome “a vote of no confidence against the chancellor,” while Bild called it “a historic slap.”
Voter unease seems not to have hurt one of Mr. Scholz’s coalition partners, the Greens. On Sunday, they were the big winners in terms of numbers gained over the last election, bettering their performance in 2017 by nearly 12 percentage points. Mr. Scholz’s two most popular ministers are Green party members who appear to be pushing for much of the popular Ukraine policy within the government coalition. One of them, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, traveled to Kyiv last week.
The Free Democratic Party, the third coalition partner in the federal government, did not do well at the polls, claiming less than 6 percent of the state’s votes.
At 56 percent, voter turnout was unusually low for a state election in Germany
“It’s a test of people’s fashion, which just shows what people think about the government’s work at the moment,” said Professor Jun.
Voters handed the Christian Democratic Union, which lost the federal election after Chancellor Angela Merkel retired, an important win. It keeps conservatives in power in the industrial west, the former heartland of the Social Democrats, but it could signal a changing tide as voters go to polls in several other big state elections in the coming years.
“The CDU is back, our forward-looking course has been vindicated,” the party leader, Friedrich Merz, said on Twitter.
The election does not directly affect federal politics in Berlin, where Mr. Scholz has been running the three-party coalition since December. But the support for the conservative government in the big western state adds to Mr. Scholz’s woes trying to keep his government stable and the Social Democratic brand strong.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
Inching closer to NATO. Finland’s government announced that the nation would apply for NATO membership, hours before Sweden’s governing party said it also supported joining the alliance. If accepted into NATO, both nations would set aside a long history of military nonalignment.
Besides regional issues such as education, security and energy, the campaign also dealt directly with Russia, as conservative state chapter leaders accused the Social Democrats of having cozy relationships with Moscow.
Home to one in five people living in Germany and 12 million voters, North Rhine Westphalia is one of the most important states in the federation. Because of its diverse makeup, it is also one of the most representative states, with a long tradition of labor dominance in its cities and more conservative strongholds in rural parts. It is home to many of Germany’s mining and manufacturing jobs and was firmly in the Social Democratic hands for decades at the end of the last century.
The conservatives’ victory is the first time since 1962 that the CDU secured two successful terms in the state. Hendrik Wüst took over the governorship in October.
The conservative win followed a trouncing of the Social Democrats last week in Schleswig-Holstein, a small state in the north. The conservatives scored a remarkable 42 percent of votes in that state; the Social Democrats, which fielded a relatively unknown candidate, finished the night with just 16 percent.
But the stakes there were different not just because the Schleswig-Holstein has a sixth of the population as North Rhine-Westphalia. Beyond that, Daniel Günther, the enormously popular conservative governor, is a nationally known figure and has been credited with a successful pandemic response.
Neither one of the candidates vying to lead North Rhine Westphalia is well known outside the state. The SPD was led by Thomas Kutschaty, a 53-year-old lawyer from Essen who once served as the state minister for justice in the previous Social Democratic government.
Because of the nature of coalition-based politics, the conservative win on Sunday will lead to a conservative government only if they can convince the Greens (or the SPD) to form a coalition, making them not just the biggest winners of Sunday’s election but also the kingmaker.