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NRW election ends a long era

The tipping point has been reached. The CDU are victorious in the state election – and the power balance shifts at national level!

The Social Democrats have held the reins for an incredible 39 years – sometimes alone, sometimes in a coalition. But the power base of the ruling SPD in North Rhine-Westphalia has been crumbling for years.

Times are hard, and the recent economic record of their administration in the state capital Düsseldorf is far from rosy. The state's debts total more than 100 billion euros; that's over 5,500 euros for every citizen of NRW.

There hasn't been a genuine "father figure" in the mould of Johannes Rau to unite voters for some time. Rau resigned in 1998, after which frequent changes have occurred at the top – Rau's "crown prince" Wolfgang Clement, followed two years later by Peer Steinbrück. The SPD hasn't established a state premier in whom the voters can blindly trust in a time of crisis.

The Social Democrats enter the campaign with Peer Steinbrück as their front-runner. He knows the election is also critical for the future of the federal government in Berlin. There, the SPD has been in power with the Greens for ten years. The coalition in NRW is the last of its kind, now that all the other Red-Green state governments have been voted out of office.

If the SPD in its core state of NRW can't hold on once again in partnership with the Greens, then the days of Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his Red-Green coalition may also be numbered. Defeat in NRW amounts to a vote of no confidence in the federal government.

Interest in the election is intense. And the turnout on 22 May 2005 is 63%, substantially higher than the last bullet2000 Landtag election in 2000. On the day, a majority of voters opt for a change. With nearly 45% the CDU is well ahead of the SPD, who only manage 37%. It's an historic outcome: an SPD government in NRW has been voted out for the first time in 39 years.

The bulletresult is also a personal triumph for CDU front-runner bulletJürgen Rüttgers – the first successful CDU candidate for the NRW state premiership since 1966.

But an even bigger news sensation explodes a short time later. Millions of television viewers can hardly believe their ears when SPD party chairman Franz Müntefering is asked about the consequences of the NRW election results in an interview. Did he really say there'll have to be a federal election in the autumn?

Journalists think they may have misheard. But it's true. The federal election will be brought forward from 2006 to autumn 2005. An early election, he says, is needed to deliver a vote of confidence in the under-fire Red-Green government in Berlin. Back us or sack us!

"Suicide to foil death" comments Der Spiegel on the evening of this risky manoeuvre by the SPD. NRW is setting the agenda of German politics!

Dirk Bitzer

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