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When Tip O’Neill, the legendary speaker of the US House of Representatives, said that “all politics is local”, he was referring to his own Irish-American base in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
His words could equally apply to state elections in Germany. Yet the lesson seems to have been lost on Norbert Röttgen, the environment minister in Angela Merkel’s government in Berlin, and leader of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Until Sunday night, he was seen as a possible successor to the German chancellor. He is bright, articulate and obviously ambitious. But now Mr Röttgen’s political reputation is in tatters, after the party slumped to its worst post-war defeat in NRW, Germany’s most populous state. He took the blame, and resigned as regional party leader.
Mr Röttgen’s mistake was two-fold. First, he declined to commit himself wholeheartedly to the local election campaign, making it clear that if he lost, he would not give up his job in Berlin to lead the opposition in Düsseldorf.
He compounded the error by fighting on national issues, in defence of Ms Merkel’s austerity policy for Germany and the wider eurozone. Only a small minority of voters believed that this was of any relevance in NRW.
The victor on Sunday night was Hannelore Kraft of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), someone unashamedly rooted in state politics and who always denied that the eurozone crisis had anything to do with the vote.
She plied the streets and market places of NRW – a state that combines the big cities of the Rhine and Ruhr valleys with the countryside of Westphalia – glad-handing the voters with obvious enthusiasm. She persuaded them that her concern for children and social welfare – her slogan: “No child shall be left behind” – was the central issue.
Ms Kraft pushed the SPD vote up to more than 39 per cent from under 35 per cent two years ago, while Mr Röttgen saw the CDU support slump to 26 per cent. Ms Kraft’s partners in power for the last two years, the environmentalist Greens, polled 11.3 per cent, to produce an absolute “red-green” majority.
In Ms Merkel’s words, it was a “bitter and painful defeat”. Yet precisely because of the federal nature of the system, the chancellor seems to be curiously unruffled by the setback. She insists she is “quite relaxed” about the outlook for next year’s national election. She is still the most popular politician at national level, and her CDU is well in front of the SPD in national polls.
Ms Kraft, on the other hand, is facing renewed speculation that she might challenge Ms Merkel for the chancellorship next year. After two victories in NRW, she is the most successful election winner the SPD has got. The three men competing to be party candidate – Sigmar Gabriel, the national chairman, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, parliamentary leader, and Peer Steinbrück, former finance minister – have not won an important election between them.
She denies any desire to move to Berlin. Yet the campaign she fought has a lesson for national politics, and her clear victory could provide a big psychological boost to her party.
Ms Kraft argued that absolute austerity was wrong, and some borrowing was needed to invest in training and education for the future. Although German voters are generally keen to trim public debt, they were not persuaded by Mr Röttgen’s savings agenda.
The SPD can see a change in the wind, after the victory of François Hollande, the Socialist leader, in the French presidential election. But so can Ms Merkel. She insists there is no contradiction between “fiscal consolidation” and “sustainable growth”.
There is everything to play for in next year’s German election. A “red-green” coalition in Berlin can no longer be excluded after NRW. But nor can Ms Merkel’s chances of topping the poll by easing up a little on austerity, even in the eurozone. The only real loser on Sunday night was Mr Röttgen, because he forgot Tip O’Neill’s wise words.
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