The Drudge headline from Sunday night was "Crushing Defeat," which it certainly was for the Christian Democrats in North Rhine-Westphalia's state election. In the span of two years, the CDU plummeted from 34.6 percent of the vote to 26.3 percent within the state. The CDU's gubernatorial candidate and environmental minister Norbert Röttgen resigned from office just today. The Social Democrats, meanwhile, increased support from 34.5 percent to 39.1 percent. Combined with the Green party's 11.3 percent, the SPD-Green coalition will be running Germany's most populous state with a solid majority. And yet Angela Merkel herself will most likely remain unthreatened in next year's national elections.
Looking closely at the results, the SPD should have done far better than a gain of a mere 4.6 percentage points considering North Rhine-Westphalia's leftist tendencies. As others have noted, the election was less about the euro and more about local issues—the Wall Street Journal's William Boston mentions, in particular, "school overhauls, the state's massive debt and jobs." In addition, the Greens actually lost support, declining from 12.1 percent to 11.3 percent, whereas the Free Democrats, who hovered dangerously below 5 percent in national polls—well below the threshold needed to be seated in the Bundestag—jumped to 8.6 percent in North Rhine-Westphalia. If the FDP garnered those numbers in a liberal state, they will probably fare well by next year's election.
Of course the FDP probably sifted votes away from disenchanted Christian Democrats, many of whom consider Röttgen the U.S. equivalent of a liberal Republican. This doesn't help the CDU, and the shift in votes to the Free Democrats isn't enough to build a majority coalition (in contrast to 2009, when the FDP won a historic 14.6 percent of the vote). Likewise, the Social Democrats and the Greens will probably not muster enough votes to run their own government. Four years ago, the far left party knows as Die Linke could be blamed for taking away votes from the SPD. This time it's Die Piraten—the Pirate Party—which is solely about one issue: total Internet freedom. Considered a joke, the Pirates won 7.8 percent in last Sunday's vote. "They don't have a platform, and when you ask them what they stand for, they don't have answers," a senior FDP member told me yesterday. Their supporters, at least in North Rhine-Westphalia, are mostly in their late teens and early twenties. They are deemed protest voters who otherwise might have gone to the Social Democrats or Die Linke (which polled a miserable 2.5 percent).
All of which is to say Chancellor Merkel will likely find herself next year dealing with a Grand Coalition involving the SPD, as was the case in 2005. And forget about any internal threat to her power: As another German recently reminded me, Merkel has always been very deft about getting rid of rivals, either pushing them aside or appointing them to her cabinet. While her fellow Christian Democrats are getting battered at the polls, she herself remains highly regarded, and her austerity policy still receives the support of the German people.
At a reception last night sponsored by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (the nonprofit arm of the FDP), I asked a handful of Germans their opinion on Greece: By and large they have accepted a Greek exit from the eurozone—perhaps it is what's needed for the Greeks to come to grips with reality. But as one correspondent joked, "Good luck with all that—and good luck getting a loan from the IMF."