Exit polls from Germany’s most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia on Sunday showed Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD) trailing the conservative CDU by a wide margin.
Surveys published after polling stations closed at 6:00 pm (1600 GMT) put the conservatives on around 35 percent, with the SPD on around 28 percent — a result that would be its worst ever in the state.
The drubbing comes amid criticism for Scholz over his stance on the war in Ukraine, especially his perceived hesitancy to provide heavy weapons to help it resist Russia’s invasion.
North-Rhine Westphalia is a prosperous industrial hub and Germany’s most populous state with some 13 million eligible voters and around a quarter of the population.
The state is home to major cities Cologne, Bonn, Duesseldorf, Essen and Dortmund, and the result will be seen as a key indicator of the political mood in Germany.
North Rhine-Westphalia’s last election in 2017 saw the CDU under Armin Laschet triumph with around 33 percent of the vote, while the SPD finished on 31.2 percent.
Laschet went on to replace Angela Merkel as the leader of the party before losing to Scholz in the race to become chancellor last year.
The CDU in North Rhine-Westphalia is now led by moderate Hendrik Wuest, 46.
Scholz had played a prominent role in the election campaign but his involvement appears to have done nothing to help SPD candidate Thomas Kutschaty, 53.
The Social Democrats were also roundly beaten in another regional election last week, in the small northern state of Schleswig-Holstein.
In North Rhine-Westphalia, exit polls showed the Green party on around 18 percent — almost triple its score in the last regional vote in 2017, when it scored 6.4 percent.
The liberal FDP was on around five percent, a sharp drop on its performance on 2017 when it joined forces with the CDU to form the regional government.
At the federal level, Scholz’s party has formed a government with the Greens and the FDP after winning last September’s general election.
The Greens have been perceived as stronger than the SPD in their response to the war in Ukraine, with Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock now Germany’s most popular politicians.
To add to the SPD’s woes, Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht is currently caught up in a storm of criticism for allowing her son to accompany her on a government helicopter on their way to a family vacation.
“The stakes in this election are high,” said Der Spiegel magazine ahead of the vote, pointing out that “whoever governs here automatically has a say at the federal level”.
A success would be a significant boost for Merkel’s CDU, which was consigned to the opposition after 16 years in office under Merkel and is now led by veteran right-winger Friedrich Merz.
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