Workers were denied any choice in key German elections on Sunday

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Workers do not really have a choice in the election taking place on Sunday in the Land of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). Representatives of all parties currently in the state parliament – Christian Democrats (CDU), Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, Free Democrats (FDP) and the far-right Alternative for Germany ( AfD) – agree that the working class must bear the costs of the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Their programs hardly differ.

Election posters in NRW: challenger Thomas Kutschaty (SPD) and incumbent Hendrik Wüst (CDU) (photo WSWS).

With 18 million inhabitants, NRW is the most populous German state and, with the Ruhr Valley at its heart, comprises the largest industrial region in Europe. One in five workers is employed in the industrial sector and 10 of the 40 companies listed on the DAX, the German stock market index, are based in NRW.

The SPD has dominated state politics since 1966, since 1995 in a coalition with the Greens. In 2005, Jürgen Rüttgers (CDU) took over as prime minister for five years until the SPD and the Greens returned to power in 2010 under Prime Minister Hannelore Kraft. In 2017, the SPD and the Greens again lost power due to their anti-worker and anti-social policies. Since then, the CDU has governed the state in a coalition with the neoliberal FDP, first under Armin Laschet and then for the last six months under Hendrik Wüst.

All these different coalition governments have pursued ruinous policies. The state is now plagued by high unemployment rates and poverty in its former coal and steel regions, dilapidated infrastructure that forces commuters to spend hours in traffic jams, dire conditions in schools (with €7,500 per student per year, NRW spends less than any other state) and skyrocketing rents. At the same time, a wealthy economic elite and middle class enjoy life in the suburbs of Cologne, Düsseldorf and other major cities in the state.

The consequences of economic sanctions against Russia and the transition to alternative energies have exacerbated the social crisis. High energy prices put hundreds of thousands of remaining jobs in steel, chemicals and other industries at risk. Moreover, rapidly rising inflation is making life unaffordable for millions of people.

Political parties are aware of growing anger and opposition, which they are trying to mitigate with all sorts of promises they made and failed to deliver in previous elections. They are, however, determined to shift the impact of the crisis onto the working class.

The CDU’s lead candidate, Hendrik Wüst, is a former business lobbyist and management consultant who served as transport minister under Laschet for four years before replacing him as head of government. If he wins the elections, Wüst has promised more collective bargaining with the unions, a minimum wage of 12 euros and the inclusion of members of the so-called “socially oriented” wing of the CDU in his government.

The first candidate of the SPD, Thomas Kutschaty, boasts of his working-class origins in the northern Ruhr. A law graduate, Kutschaty served as justice minister for seven years under Hannelore Kraft.

In this capacity, he became best known for his public feud with Essen social judge Jan-Robert von Renesse, who, according to Kutschaty, interpreted Germany’s “ghetto pension law” too liberally. The law, passed by the Bundestag in 2002, 57 years after the fall of the Nazi regime, granted pension rights to Jews who had worked as laborers in the ghettos created by the Nazis. Kutschaty fired the judge and dragged him to court for defamation, sparking international protests, including from the Center of Holocaust Survivor Organizations and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The only promise that the candidates for the elections take seriously is their promise to strengthen the powers and equipment of the police. Wüst promised that Herbert Reul (CDU) would remain interior minister in his cabinet if he won the election.

Reul is a strict law and order man who is quite willing to turn a blind eye to legal transgressions, however, when it comes to police operations. He has increased the police budget five times in a row and now plans to hire 3,000 new officers a year. Ruel is responsible for a draconian police law that has led to tens of thousands of people taking to the streets in protest. The law gives police intelligence surveillance powers, allows the detention of suspected “dangerous persons” and expands the possibility of random checks by police.

The election result is open. For weeks, the CDU and SPD have been neck and neck at around 30%, with the CDU usually slightly ahead. In the last regional elections, the CDU obtained 33% of the votes against 31.2% for the SPD.

If there is no fundamental change in the next few days, the Greens will decide the composition of the next coalition. In the polls, the Greens sit around 17%, more than 10 points above their 2017 result, when they won just 6.4% of the vote. Based on their current polls, the party could form a coalition government in the state with the CDU or the SPD.

In the ruling “traffic light coalition” (SPD, Greens, FDP), the Greens are the most aggressive war party. They are pushing for an escalation of the war in Ukraine, which in reality is a NATO war against Russia. The party, with deep roots in the upper middle class, also supports tougher sanctions on Russia, even if it costs hundreds of thousands of jobs.

It is unlikely that the FDP can help the CDU or the SPD win a majority. It fell from 12.6% to 8% in the polls, largely due to the disastrous coronavirus and the school policy implemented by current Education Minister Yvonne Gebauer (FDP).

Gebauer has angered millions of parents, students and teachers after stripping the most basic protective measures in schools and daycares. After Germany’s first coronavirus lockdown, she pushed for schools to open quickly and undermined all other safeguards. She even banned schools from taking their own initiatives to limit exposure to the virus and took action against principals who persisted in wearing safety masks in schools. She dismissed the concerns of parents of children with pre-existing conditions. Gebauer’s emails to schools, changing existing rules overnight, were feared.

According to a poll, at the height of the omicron wave, 74% of respondents were unhappy with Gebauer and its coronavirus policy. Some commentators even consider it possible that popular discontent with Gebauer could lead to the electoral defeat of his coalition partner Wüst.

The far-right AfD is also expected to re-enter the state parliament with around 7%, slightly less than in the last election, according to polls. The Left Party, which narrowly missed entering parliament in 2017 with 4.9%, has no chance this time around. He votes at 3%.

The outgoing government’s handling of last summer’s flood disaster could also influence the outcome of the election. In Rhineland-Palatinate, the flood claimed 134 lives and 49 people died in NRW after the government failed to warn and evacuate in time. Environment Minister Ursula Heinen-Esser (CDU) had to resign in April this year when it emerged she had lied about her behavior and spent several days on vacation in Mallorca immediately after the flood disaster .

No matter the final outcome of the elections, whether Wüst or Kutschaty takes power and governs with the Greens, the FDP or these two parties, there will be no change for the working class. It can only defend its social and political interests by engaging in the fight against social cuts and war independently on the basis of an international socialist perspective and by building its own party, the Socialist Equality Party.

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