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Olaf Scholz’s reputation on the line in big German vote

BERLIN — The chancellor is taking a chance.

Olaf Scholz is getting personally involved in a big German state election campaign, helping to turn the vote into a mini-referendum on his leadership and his first six months as Angela Merkel’s successor.

Scholz will attend the final rally of his center-left Social Democrats (SPD) in Cologne on Friday ahead of Sunday’s vote in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state.

As polls show the SPD in a tight race with their conservative rivals, the Social Democrats have bet on the Scholz factor. The chancellor features on posters alongside the party’s candidate for state premier, Thomas Kutschaty. And the SPD has boasted Kutschaty would have a direct line to the chancellery if he wins.

But that’s a considerable gamble. The head of a three-party government, Scholz has faced a tumultuous first few months in office, shaped above all by the war in Ukraine. The former Hamburg mayor has overseen some historic policy shifts, sending weapons to Ukraine and boosting defense spending. But he has also faced heavy criticism at home and abroad, not least in Ukraine, accused of being too timid in responding to the war and of not communicating clearly.

If the SPD manages to win back North Rhine-Westphalia after five years in opposition, it would be a major boost for Scholz and the party. But if the Social Democrats lose, Scholz will be personally associated with the defeat, just a week after the SPD suffered a crushing loss in another state election.

Elections in North Rhine-Westphalia are traditionally dubbed “mini federal elections” due to the size of the state’s population — nearly 18 million people, around one in five of the country’s inhabitants. The state also wields substantial political and economic power. Its regional party branches are big players at the national level. And the state had a gross domestic product of €733 billion last year — more than Turkey, Sweden, or Switzerland.

Sunday’s vote is also a big test for the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and their national leader Friedrich Merz, who is trying to outshine Scholz, most recently by traveling to Kyiv and meeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — something Scholz still hasn’t done since the outbreak of the war.

The party has run the state government in North Rhine-Westphalia for the past five years in partnership with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), who are now also part of Scholz’s coalition in Berlin.

Less local

German state elections are often heavily influenced by local personalities — a popular state premier or opposition leader can make a big difference. But that’s not the case this time around in North Rhine-Westphalia, where both the leading candidates are low-profile figures.

Kutscharty has attracted little attention as regional opposition leader while state premier Hendrik Wüst only took over the top job in October last year, succeeding Armin Laschet, the CDU’s failed candidate for chancellor in last year’s general election.

“The election in North Rhine-Westphalia is remarkable in the sense that both candidates aren’t well-known personalities and don’t have a high popularity,” said Wolfgang Schroeder, a political science professor at Kassel University.

“This means, of course, that the SPD and CDU are trying to score points with their nationally known political heavyweights. It also means that the general political mood at the national level is having a greater impact on the election campaign than would be usually the case,” Schroeder said.

But relying on that political mood is risky for the Social Democrats.

The party’s Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht has been under attack from the opposition and media commentators for taking her adult son with her on a government helicopter for a holiday trip. Although the defense ministry said that Lambrecht acted legally over the trip — properly notifying officials of her plans days ahead of time and covering the costs for the private travel out of her own pocket — the negative coverage could hurt the SPD at the polls on Sunday.

But even coming first in the election may not ultimately mean victory for either the CDU or the SPD. Much may depend on who can form a coalition to govern the state.

The FDP, the CDU’s current partner in the regional government, is only polling at around 8 percent — 4.6 percentage points less than 2017.

The Greens, meanwhile, are poised to surge from about 6 percent of the vote in the last state election to some 16 percent this time around, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls.

The Greens are widely seen as natural partners for the SPD and the two parties may be able to form a state government even if the Social Democrats finish second — although the party’s regional lead candidate, Mona Neubaur, has been keeping her options open when it comes to a potential partner.

“No matter in which government constellation, we Greens are the guarantor for shaping the change that’s urgently needed,” she said this week.

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