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Conservative challenge to German Chancellor Scholz grows after poll

Published May 17,2022

The leader of Germany's conservatives, Friedrich Merz, said this weekend's emphatic victory in North Rhine Westphalia's state election put his Christian Democrats (CDU) in "first place" nationwide, as he turned up the heat on Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

"The election result is a clear answer to the federal government and the chancellor," Merz said in Berlin on Monday.

Scholz's Social Democrats (SPD) came second in the industrial western state of North Rhine Westphalia, losing out by a far larger margin - nine percentage points - than polls had predicted.

"Since yesterday, the CDU is again in first place among the German parties," Merz said at a press conference in Berlin.

Before Scholz's SPD won national elections in September last year, the conservatives had been in power in various coalitions for 16 years under former chancellor Angela Merkel.

New leader Merz has promised a renewal of the party, and two state election wins in the past eight days have given him a significant boost. In both North Rhine Westphalia on Sunday and in Schleswig-Holstein the week before, the CDU left the SPD trailing far behind.

The other big winner in the weekend's election, the Greens, have meanwhile started laying out some of their policy demands after seeing its share of the vote more than double.

The Greens are now kingmakers in the state, with the most likely outcome being a CDU-Greens coalition, although, at this stage, most officials have not ruled out other possible coalitions.

A senior Greens lawmaker in the national parliament, Katharina Dröge, said the CDU leader in North Rhine Westphalia, Hendrik Wüst, would have to think carefully about his environmental policies before any coalition negotiations could begin.

"Hendrik Wüst must in any case say goodbye to policies that mean slowing down the energy transition," she told public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk, referring to efforts to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Although he said he would consider offers of talks from "all democratic parties," Wüst gave a hint of which direction he would be taking in his press conference on Monday.

The biggest challenge for the incoming administration in North Rhine Westphalia - which includes major cities Cologne, Dusseldorf, Essen and Dortmund - would be "reconciling climate change policy and [the needs of] industry," he said.

The North Rhine Westphalia CDU gave exploratory talks with the SPD, the Greens and the FDP the green light on Monday, with Wüst promising that the "invitations will go out today."

The CDU won the state with 35.7%, followed by the SPD on 26.7% and the Greens on 18.2%. Two other parties, the liberal Free Democrats and the far-right Alternative for Germany also made it into the state parliament.

CDU general secretary Mario Czaja told broadcaster ZDF on Monday that he expected the next government in North Rhine Westphalia to be a coalition of his conservatives and the Greens.

The two were the clear winners and "the forming of a coalition should also follow this direction," he said.

Regional SPD leader Thomas Kutschaty admitted on Monday that the CDU should have the first chance to form a coalition.