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HomeFT SelectMerkel and Schulz face re-engaged voters in key regional poll

Merkel and Schulz face re-engaged voters in key regional poll

It was planned as a routine engagement for Martin Schulz — open a new children’s playground, say a few words, sign some autographs and pose for selfies. 

But the event in a drab suburb of the industrial western town of Hamm was anything but an easy ride for the German Social Democrat leader, who is challenging Chancellor Angela Merkel in September’s parliamentary election. 

What began as a celebrity-style appearance soon became a grilling. A woman wanted to know why “Christian Germany” was “becoming Muslim” after the influx of refugees from Islamic countries. A man asked why the Afghan teenager he had fostered might face deportation. Another wondered how Mr Schulz might handle Donald Trump, the newly-elected US president.

The demands for answers show a clear trend: that German voters are refocusing on politics after years of disengagement. They are putting politicians under pressure in response to the domestic turmoil generated by the refugee crisis, which has seen the arrival of more than 1m asylum-seekers, and by shocks abroad, including Brexit and Mr Trump’s election.

Middle-of-the-road voters, worried by the rise of the rightwing Alternative for Germany party, are rallying around the mainstream parties — but asking difficult questions.

“There is a real increase in political engagement in Germany,” says Robert Vehrkamp, a researcher at the Bertelsmann Foundation, a think-tank. “After Brexit and the vote in the US, people realise something is at stake.” 

With the national election still more than four months away, voters in populous North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), which includes the Ruhr industrial belt, are going to the polls on Sunday in what is widely seen as a “mini-Bundestag election”. 

As such, the key issue is whether Mr Schulz, who was in Hamm campaigning for the NRW poll, can capitalise on the support he has generated since taking over the SPD in January and sustain his hopes of toppling Ms Merkel, Europe’s most powerful political leader. 

He has already suffered two regional election setbacks: in March, Mr Schulz’s personal campaigning failed to unseat Ms Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in Saarland. On Sunday, an SPD-led coalition was unexpectedly booted out of office by a triumphant CDU in Schleswig-Holstein.

After the SPD enjoyed a dramatic surge in its national opinion poll ratings from about 20 per cent to 30-32 per cent in March, bringing it close to the CDU, the party has slipped back, recording 29 per cent in a GMS research group poll last week, well behind Ms Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrat-led bloc on 36 per cent.

That still leaves the race open, says Holger Geissler, Germany research head at the YouGov research agency. “At the moment, there is still so much going on in the world that could affect the result, such as a terrorist attack.” 

North Rhine-Westphalia, with 18m people, is widely seen as a political testing ground.

While its economy bears the scars of post-industrial restructuring, it supports high-tech engineering, vineyards and extensive farmlands.

Its mosaic of traditional villages, depressed former coal mining towns and dynamic cities such as Cologne is home to an immigrant-rich mix including Germany’s largest Muslim community. The election has drawn no fewer than 31 parties, including representatives of vegans, animal welfare campaigners, neo-Nazis and Marxist-Leninists. 

Hannelore Kraft, the state’s feisty 55-year-old SPD chief minister, says that decades of restructuring in response to the decline of coal and steel has made NRW flexible and “unafraid of change”. 

The popular Ms Kraft enjoys a wide lead in personal ratings over her lacklustre CDU challenger, Armin Laschet. But her party has been dented by a patchy record in government including alleged failures to cut crime, adequately monitor terrorist suspects or boost the economy.

With the initial enthusiasm surrounding Mr Schulz also fading, the SPD, which had hoped for a comfortable win, has a fight on its hands. The latest opinion polls have the party and the CDU neck and neck on about 32 per cent. In 2012, the SPD won by 39 per cent to 26 per cent.

The AfD, which stood as high as 13 per cent in NRW opinion polls last year, has fallen as low as 6 per cent, amid internal disputes and a drift to the right that has made the party unacceptable even to some of its former supporters. 

Ms Merkel scents blood. Speaking after the CDU’s surprise win in Schleswig-Holstein, she pledged to fight personally in NRW. “I will still be campaigning there myself,” she said. “We’ll be going full speed ahead.”

Hannelore Kraft, the SPD’s chief minister in North Rhine Westphalia, is more popular than her CDU challenger © Reuters

Meanwhile, Mr Schulz is on the defensive. He faces an unresolved dilemma about whether to take the party left or right in the hunt for votes.

He has focused heavily on social inequality as his top priority, pledging to help the disadvantaged in words that appeal to the left.

But that has raised fears that he might seek a coalition with the leftwing Left party, drawn from the former East German Communists. That alienates moderates.

This week, Mr Schulz has gone out of his way to refocus on the middle ground, promising a business audience to exclude any uncosted election promises from his programme and allow “economic reason to prevail”. 

Mr Schulz gave no details, but as he found out in Hamm, he will almost certainly come under public pressure to do so.

Ms Kraft says: “Once people were reluctant to speak. Now, if you get 200 people to a meeting, you get 60 or 80 questions.”

Via FT