Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s party suffered a major political setback in a regional election Sunday as the opposition Social Democrats retained control by an unexpectedly large margin in North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous of West Germany’s 10 semi-autonomous states.
The Social Democrats increased their share of the popular vote from 48.4% in the 1980 state election to 52.1% this time. The size of the victory was widely assessed as a significant defeat for both Kohl personally and his party, the Christian Democratic Union, the senior partner in the federal coalition government.
The defeat was seen as a rejection of Kohl’s policies to trim federal spending by cutting back social welfare programs, imposing restraints on old-age pensions and failing to attack high unemployment, now running at more than 9% nationally and almost 11% in North Rhine-Westphalia. This area contains the industrial Ruhr region, with 17 million of the country’s 62 million inhabitants.
“The results will increase pressure on Kohl to reduce these cuts,” noted one diplomat who had monitored the campaign closely.
The lone bright spot for Kohl was that the Free Democrats, who are a junior partner in the Bonn coalition, staged a modest recovery. They surmounted the 5% vote requirement needed for representation in the federal and state parliaments. This time they got 6%, up from 4.98% they received in the 1980 election.
The alternative Greens party fell below the 5% barrier with 4.6% of the popular vote.
The Christian Democrats’ defeat came despite last-minute efforts by the party to cash in on President Reagan’s controversial visit last week to a German war cemetery at Bitburg.
The Christian Democratic candidate for state premier, Bernhard Worms, noted that the majority of West Germans favored the cemetery visit and spent the final days of the campaign hailing Reagan’s actions as having revived West Germany’s national pride. Worms had also criticized the Social Democrats for not supporting the Reagan visit more strongly.
On Sunday, however, the Social Democrats’ victorious candidate for state premier, Johannas Rau, said sloppy preparation and presentation of the Reagan state visit had helped bring votes to his own party.
In a national televised post-election discussion program, Kohl and Social Democratic Chairman Willy Brandt hurled accusations at each other over the impact of the Reagan visit, each claiming the other had tarnished the country’s image.
Kohl accused Brandt and his party of engaging in “primitive anti-Americanism” before and during the Reagan visit.
“You should be ashamed of yourself, chancellor,” Brandt countered. “You have harmed our people with these lies. . . . You told untruths to the people.”
At one point Brandt, a former chancellor, slammed the table and compared the Christian Democratic Party general secretary, Heiner Geissler, who helped direct the state election campaign, to Hitler’s propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels. Brandt shouted that Geissler was “the worst rabble-rouser in our country since Goebbels.”
While the fallout from Reagan’s visit dominated the postelection rhetoric, the returns contained important longer-term implications at the national level.
Worms, the Christian Democratic candidate, was generally viewed as Kohl’s man, making it a personal defeat for the chancellor.
Sunday’s results also marked the second time in two months that the Social Democrats have captured an absolute majority in a state election. Last March, left-wing populist Oskar Lafontaine led the Social Democrats to their first clear majority ever in the Saarland.
The two victories give the Social Democrats considerable momentum for the next national election scheduled for 1987.
The size of Rau’s victory, plus the importance of North Rhine-Westphalia in national terms, is certain to vault him into the limelight as a possible candidate for chancellor in the 1987 elections.
The party’s present shadow chancellor, Hans-Jochen Vogel, did not run well in the 1983 elections, and many political observers believe he lacks the personal appeal required of a winning candidate.
Rau, 54, exudes a more assertive personality and was such a strong candidate that many of the party’s election posters centered their appeal on him.
“If You Want Johannes Rau, Then You Have to Vote SPD,” one poster said.
The son of a Protestant minister, Rau was born in the Ruhr industrial city of Wuppertal and completed an apprenticeship as a book publisher’s representative before entering politics in the late 1950s.
He describes himself as a party moderate and has distanced himself from his party’s extreme left, especially on issues of foreign policy.