Within a week, state elections were held in two German states; Schleswig-Holstein already voted on May 7th, and North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, voted on May 15th. In both elections, the Social Democrats of the SPD, which had previously scored points in several state elections and governed at the federal level, lost in favor of the Christian Democratic CDU. The big winner, however, especially in North Rhine-Westphalia, is the Green Party, which now has around 18% of the vote in both states and enters the coalition-seeking phase as kingmakers in each case. The liberal FDP lost, in some cases drastically, as did the AfD, which was not in good standing in either state even before the election.
In Schleswig-Holstein, the CDU, led by its Minister President Daniel Günther received 43.4% of all votes, an increase of 11.4% compared to 2017. Günther is considered the most prominent representative of a pragmatic “Merkelism” in the CDU. The gain in this election also roughly corresponds to the losses of the SPD, which lost 11.3% and reached a historic low with a result of only 16%. The Greens’ gain was 5.4%, which means they are now also the second strongest force in Schleswig-Holstein with 18.3%. The FDP, although also a previous coalition partner with the CDU and the Greens, lost 5.1% and landed at just 6.4%. The AfD suffered a bitter defeat, losing 1.5% and missing out on entry into the state parliament with just 4.4%. On the other hand, the SSW, the party of the Danish and Frisian minorities in the state, gained 2.4% and reached a total of 5.7%.
The CDU celebrated accordingly. Daniel Günther explicitly thanked the Greens and the FDP “for the great cooperation.” A coalition with the Greens is now close at hand, even if a narrow majority with the FDP would still work out.
On the Green side, Federal Minister of Economics and Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck also took the floor, who congratulated Daniel Günther on his election victory, but also emphasized that Günther “will also know who he has to thank for the good result.” Habeck also underscored this with a verbal wink at Günther when he said “Günther is smart enough to recognize when two parties win the election what has to follow from that.”
In the SPD’s self-analysis, they emphasized that they “had not succeeded in scoring with issues,” according to top candidate Thomas Losse-Müller. His party colleague Ralf Stegner consoled himself with the fact that “if the right-wing radicals [meaning the AfD; ed.] are out of the state parliament, then there is at least a small reason to be happy.”
While the FDP candidate, Bernd Buchholz, thought the result “was a pity” because he “would have liked to have had more,” resignation prevailed among the AfD. Jörg Nobis, the AfD’s top candidate in Schleswig-Holstein, commented on his party’s departure: “Times of crisis are times of government. Mr. Günther was able to profit massively from this.” Nobis also suggested that the AfD’s position on the war in Ukraine was partly responsible for the result, as well as internal disputes that did not go down well with voters. “We are out, and I still thank you from the bottom of my heart for fighting,” Nobis told his party colleagues after the election.
The CDU’s election victory in North Rhine-Westphalia was not quite as clear-cut. Nevertheless, the victory came as a bit of a surprise to Hendrik Wüst, who took over from Armin Laschet only 8 months ago following Laschet’s defeat in the federal election campaign. Similar to Günther in Schleswig-Holstein, Hendrik Wüst also presents himself as a “man of the middle,” which in his case means a clear devotion to core Green issues. In addition to a planned bicycle law, he commited to phasing out coal not by 2038, as originally planned, but by 2030, as demanded by the Greens. Voters thanked him with a 2.7% increase in votes to 35.7%, which ultimately put the CDU well ahead of the SPD, contrary to the polls.
The SPD lost 4.5% at the same time and ended up with 26.7% for the time being. For the SPD, this meant a fall to a new record low—for the second time in a row—in its former core federal state. After top candidate Thomas Kutschaty was even down to 17% in polls, the party tried to make up ground through joint advertising with Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The party’s strategy, whose claim is to be the party with the most votes in Germany’s industrial region, only succeeded to a limited extent.
The Greens, on the other hand, once again exceeded expectations. With an increase in votes of 11.8% to a total of 18.2%, they are the clear winner of the evening and are accordingly also seen in North Rhine-Westphalia as potential coalition partners of the CDU, especially since the content-related similarities now outweigh the dividing factors. Top candidate Mona Neubaur already announced that in the future there will be “a strong Green signature in the government,” adding, “It may not matter so much which man takes over as prime minister.” On the talk show Anne Will, the federal leader of the Green Party, Ricarda Lang, even wanted North Rhine-Westphalia to become “Europe’s first climate-neutral industrial region.”
Liberals attributed the defeat of the FDP, which plummeted from 12.6% to 5.9%, to the coronavirus policy of their education minister, who had made herself unpopular with schools and parents with her back and forth course regarding masks and coronavirus tests. After some initial trepidation, however, the FDP is now likely to have made it into the state parliament after all.
This was not in doubt for the AfD, but in the end it was quite close with losses of almost 2% before the preliminary final result of 5.4% was achieved. The national party chairman Tino Chrupalla was relieved about making the state parliament again, but was “not satisfied in its entirety” with the result.
Also worth mentioning in both elections is the voter turnout. While turnout in Schleswig-Holstein was 60.4% (2017: 64.2%), in North Rhine-Westphalia it actually fell by almost 10% to 55.5% (2017: 65.2%). In absolute terms, therefore, this means in North Rhine-Westphalia that only the Greens were able to win over voters, and even the CDU lost more than 200,000 votes compared to the last election.
Publicist and former SPD-politician Thilo Sarrazin commented on the election results in North Rhine-Westphalia by predicting future “all-party governments under the moral leadership of the Greens” in Germany. With their presence in both the federal government and various state governments, the Greens would thus become “a kind of super-party,” Sarrazin said.