The local elections in North Rhine-Westphalia are significant in several respects: as a mood test for coping with the pandemia-related economic crisis, as a mood test for Prime Minister Armin Laschet as an aspirant to the CDU chairmanship and last but not least as a “political laboratory” for the possibilities of a black-green government at the federal level from next year.
Around 14 million citizens aged 16 and over were called to vote. The already low turnout in local elections was 51.9% (+2%) this time. slightly higher. There are still enormous reserves of mobilisation here. The CDU and SPD have collected their worst local election result since the founding of the federal state. The Greens can now be regarded as equal sacrificing. A majority at the state level could only be obtained in black and green, which will undoubtedly shape the Bundestag election next year. The former managing director of the Wuppertal Institute and OB candidate of the Greens and CDU in Wuppertal spoke highly of the “bergische Politik-Labor” during the election campaign.
The SPD, in which the then Prime Minister Wolfgang Clement had pushed through the Agenda 2010 course and whose election defeat in 2005 fueled the emergence of the left, is now losing part of the then conquered New Center, whose agenda course is at least called into question morally and power-politically with the election of Saskia Eskens and Norbert Walter-Borjans. At the same time, there has been no return of the disillusioned to the SPD.
The middle class is eroding socially and economically and this affects not only the SPD of the New Center but also the Christian Democrats in particular. The CDU is losing and fighting, especially in the university towns, against the modern party of the centre, which has not yet worn itself out by the use of power and stands for a different approach to the issues of the time. Friedrich Merz and Norbert Röttgen, the competitors of Prime Minister Armin Laschet, also from NRW, point to this strategic gap in the lack of anchoring of their party in these milieus, especially in large and university cities, where the Greens are often faced in the run-off elections.
In Cologne, Münster, Bonn, Aachen, the Greens became the strongest faction in the city council. Despite a series of run-off elections for the OB post, the signs point to black-green approaches (joint OB candidacies in Cologne, Wuppertal).
Among 16- to 24-year-olds, the Greens are by far the strongest party nationwide, with around a third of the vote. DIE LINKE has twice as much in this group as the national average, but this does not replace the losses in other age groups. In generation 60+, i.e. the age cohorts, which were still of working age (45-60 years) in the founding phase of the LINKEN and formed the core of the electorate, the party now has only 2% support.
The memory of the welfare state fades and DIE LINKE has apparently turned to other issues in the intra-party struggles for position and profiling. It no longer makes sense to continue working on the SPD as the authors of the agenda policy, because the moral criticism of inequality also has a voice in the SPD and the critics of the Schroeder/Fischer reforms have long since turned their backs on the SPD.
The SPD and CDU have their relatively highest losses in the group of younger voters (-12 and -9% compared to 2014). In the conurbations, as a WDR by-election survey shows, new youth-savvy groups are emerging with the PARTEI and with “Volt”, which came to 1% and 0.5% nationwide, respectively. In Cologne, these groups achieved a competitive 7% and 10% respectively among the younger electorate, while DIE LINKE remained at 8% and the SPD at 12%. In Dortmund, PARTEI received 6%, DIE LINKE 8% of the votes cast. In almost all non-circular cities, a group of 2-4% of the electorate gathers around the Sonneborn Association, and the trend is increasing. In Cologne, according to the analysis of the statistics office, DIE LINKE lost about 2% of its electorate in 2014 to AfD and “Volt” and 15% to “others”, which is far more than to the Greens (6%). “Volt” has attracted almost 16% of the former Greens. This party, which appeared for the first time with the EU election and indulges in a supposedly ideologically free modernism, achieved not only the 5% in Cologne but also in a few other university cities.
On this basis, DIE LINKE will have to reinvent itself or it will disappear from the screen. There are hardly any major rashes among the sexes. In Cologne, too, the relatively successful LINKE only has a regular electorate in parts, as can be seen from the fact that one in 10 voted for the SPD man and every 4th of the CDU candidate in the mayoral election and not the candidate. In Dortmund, just under a fifth of the left-wing electorate voted for the SPD official or the CDU candidate. In both cities, the SPD people are in the run-off.
Eight out of ten Green voters describe the environment and climate as the crucial issue for them. Among the supporters of the LINKEN, it is almost four out of ten, after which the importance of environmental policy for the election decision decreases rapidly, with AfD voters it plays virtually no role at all. Conversely, the issue of the economy plays a decisive role only for one in ten Green voters and only for one in five voters of the LINKEN; it remains the main topic for CDU and FDP customers. For the Green electorate, the current deepest economic crisis of the post-war period does not seem to be an important issue, but neither is it for the LINKE, which cannot link this to its social concerns.
The link between the economy and the climate could not be conveyed by the LINKEN. The radical left sections reduced the connection to the fact that positive climate change can only exist with a change of system without being able to explain how they want to shape it. Other parts were limited to setting more radical climate goals than the rest of the political competitors. From this it can also be explained that issues in which economics and ecology are mixed in concrete terms only play a subordinate role – both for the Greens and for the LINKEN. To change this, a profound political-economic formation of left membership would be necessary – “and not enthusiastic about every stupidity” (Gramsci).
This is exemplified by the housing issue. DIE LINKE has not been able to distinguish itself with its own topic of living, because the mix here is too different nationwide. In the conurbation of the Rhine rail (example Cologne) and in the university towns, the situation is much more tense for tenants than in the Ruhr area, which is shown by the fact that the topic of housing in Cologne is one of the most important five topics for 22%, for SPD supporters even 34%, but not on average in the country.
The same applies to transport and urban development. People are turning back to the car due to pandemia and in view of the real state of public transport, although they consider the development of public transport to be important. In an area like NRW, you are thrown back on the car anyway, because there is hardly any efficient public transport.
DIE LINKE fell from 92 to 76 seats in the district-free cities and from 76 to 62 in the county councils. The communitarianism-cosmopolitandebate has harmed the LINKEN as it has been conducted, its electorate has rather remained at home and only small parts have migrated to the Greens or the ethnic-nationals. Especially in the poorer districts with the very low turnout, the picture could therefore be established that there had been a swing from the LINKEN to the AfD. THE LINKE can only inspire its electorate on its own.
Climate change and related issues have dominated the discourse, they are currently being linked to the Greens. THE LINKE should try to combine this with its own core competence. It is only secondly a question of an urban lifestyle or even the anchoring of a hip lifestyle in local politics, but rather of the general prerequisites for ecological management and social security in the corona-reinforced structural change: continuing training in short-time working, too high a cost of life, lack of housing, low incomes.
Latent fears also contributed to the local elections. One issue that the LINKEN emphatically avoided in Cologne and Dortmund is internal security, which is one of the five most important issues among a quarter of the CDU supporters and one-fifth of the SPD clientele. Migration and immigration, the hobby horses of the Völkisch-national, are among the important topics in many Ruhr area cities included in the list of important topics, albeit downstream. And in Dortmund, the labour market remains one of the five important issues.
Dissatisfaction with the work of the state government had grown steadily since 2017 to 52% at the turn of the year, and only the Corona crisis caused this figure to drop back to 29%. However, as the virus-intensified economic crisis progressed, this figure again grew to 42%.
The cold anger at the continuation of the impositions (“crisis is always”) has so far not brought the LINKEN any influx. The strategic option that DIE LINKE could tap into this cold rage was once again refuted in the local elections: this potential first flowed to the pirates (2012), then to the AfD (2015-2017) and now radicalizes itself in another fermentation pond (symbolized by the attempted storm ingesrated on the Reichstag building) against “the up there” and their hated parliamentary system (“Corona dictatorship”). Overall, however, the population in NRW is satisfied with the pandemic management of their city administration, only 10 to 20% express dissatisfaction.
Even before Corona, German society was marked by a massive inequality, which became and is deepened by the consequences of the pandemic. Incomes are more unequal today than they were two or three decades ago, wealth more concentrated than in almost all other eurozone countries. Rich people mostly remain rich, the poor poor, the social status of children strongly depends on the home. In the last “fat” years before the pandemic, inequality has hardly declined, despite the good economic situation.
Not only since the pandemic, the “local” society is also facing epochal changes – for which the Greens and the SPD have no offers. “It cannot also be the case that high earners do not have to change their way of life, while people from other social milieus are supposed to restrict themselves,” says even the failed Martin Schulz.
In view of the saturation tendencies with the Fordist automobile and other products, morally controversial lifestyles (long-distance travel), decaying public infrastructure and requirements of decentralization (homeschooling, home office, digitization), a healthier, more ecological and more humane way of life seems necessary and thus new areas of growth and employment are possible.
Since most municipalities will continue to groan in the next 100 years under their fiscal imbalances and over-indebtedness, the scope for a policy of active social and ecological structural change remains cruelly narrow. This leads to demands on the federal level (both the party DIE LINKE and the government) if the equality of living conditions (Art. 28 GG) in the cities is to be maintained.
The diversion of many people’s displeasure with social dislocations – exacerbated by the pandemic and its consequences – to anti-system reflexes should be countered with an intensified and open discussion of alternatives. Black-green adds only one more variant to the eternal ruling party CDU. After the FDP and SPD, the Greens are the new pillar of the bourgeois camp.
The LINKEN Land Executive Board does not have the authority to make a recommendation in the run-off elections for regional councils and mayoral elections to prevent the strategic dimension of a black-green alliance in the municipality, in the federal government in 2021 and in the country in 2022.