Friday, 1 July, 2022

Scholz faces test as Germany's most populous region votes

DÜSSELDORF: Germans are voting in a key regional poll on Sunday with Chancellor Olaf Scholz under pressure over his response to the war in Ukraine and his Social Democrats facing stiff competition from the conservatives, reports AFP.

Voters have until 6:00 pm (1600 GMT) to cast their ballots in North-Rhine Westphalia, a prosperous industrial hub and Germany's most populous state with some 13 million inhabitants or around a quarter of the population.

The state is home to major cities Cologne, Bonn, Duesseldorf, Essen and Dortmund, and the result will be seen as a key indicator of the political mood in Germany. Latest polls show the conservative CDU ahead on around 32 percent, with Scholz's Social Democrats (SPD) on around 29 percent.

North Rhine-Westphalia's last election in 2017 was won by the CDU under Armin Laschet, who went on to replace Angela Merkel as the leader of the party but lost 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 cast his vote on Sunday morning with his wife and baby daughter in his hometown of Rhede.

The SPD, which was dominant in the region in the 1980s and 1990s, appears to be struggling to seize back power despite Scholz's personal involvement in the election campaign.

In fact, SPD candidate Thomas Kutschaty, 53, may be suffering from his association with Scholz, who has faced growing criticism in recent weeks over what critics have described as a lacklustre response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The Social Democrats were roundly beaten in another regional election last week, in the small northern state of Schleswig-Holstein.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, the Green party -- polling on around 17 percent -- could end up being the kingmaker, joining forces with either the CDU or the SPD to form the regional government.

At the federal level, Scholz's party formed a government with the Greens and the liberal FDP after winning last September's general election.

The Greens have been perceived 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.

To add to the SPD's woes, Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht is currently caught up in a storm of criticism for allowing her son to accompany her on a government helicopter on their way to a family vacation.

"The stakes in this election are high," said Der Spiegel magazine, pointing out that "whoever governs here automatically has a say at the federal level".

A victory would be an important boost for the CDU, relegated to the opposition in last year's election after 16 years in power under Merkel and now led by veteran right-winger Friedrich Merz.