Merkel Uses Law and Order to Bust the Populists

(Bloomberg View) -- This year's third and last state election, in Germany's most populous state, has put Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union firmly on the road to victory in September's general election. And while the party's two previous wins looked somewhat accidental, this one makes it clear exactly how Merkel intends to prevail.

North Rhine-Westphalia, with its 17 million people, is also Germany's most diverse land. It includes cosmopolitan Cologne, in which every third resident is an immigrant, and tradition-rich Muenster, where the share of people with a migration background is only half that high; Guetersloh, one of Germany's wealthiest communities, and former coal town Gelsenkirchen, one of the poorest. It's both industrial and agricultural, depressed and prosperous. It's like Germany itself in many ways, and to have a chance at beating Merkel this year, it would have been necessary to beat her party there.

Historically, North Rhein-Westphalia is a citadel of the Social Democratic Party, which has run it for most of the last 50 years. In the last election, the SPD won comfortably, and Hannelore Kraft, the party's most powerful woman, served as the state prime minister, heading a coalition government with the Greens. This year, too, the SPD appeared headed for victory, and not because of anything as fickle as the "Schulz effect" -- the poll bonus the party received after selecting former European Parliament President Martin Schulz as its candidate for the chancellorship. Kraft was far more popular than the CDU's top candidate, Armin Laschet, an uncharismatic politician with a long but spotty record in local government.

And yet the CDU was first at the finish line on Sunday with 33 percent to the SPD's 31.2 percent. Laschet will be the new state prime minister, regardless of the coalition he ends up building -- either with the SPD or with the pro-business, liberal Free Democratic Party, which is on the rise again after failing to get into the federal parliament in 2013.

In its two previous defeats this year, in Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein, the SPD could blame its local leaders or circumstances. The party's candidates, indeed, made tactical mistakes. But it's going to be difficult to lay the blame at Kraft's feet for Sunday's debacle. The motherly SPD prime minister didn't lose, Laschet won under Merkel's gentle supervision.

He did so by presenting himself as the law and order candidate -- a role that didn't fit his unimpressive stature, natural friendliness and his past as North Rhine-Westphalia's integration minister with a reputation for softness on immigrants. During the 2015 refugee crisis, Laschet was firmly with Merkel, who opened Germany's borders to all comers for a while, and not with her opponents within the party who insisted on quotas. But during the campaign, he was all for deporting immigrants who have committed crimes, and for making it impossible to miss another Anis Amri -- the man who drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin last year and who was registered as an asylum-seeker in North Rhine-Westphalia. He hammered the SPD for the state's high crime rate -- as compared to Bavaria, run by the CDU's sister party -- and called the socialist interior minister a "security risk."

In the state where hundreds of women were attacked by North African and Middle Eastern men on Cologne's central square on the last day of 2015, Laschet's calls for tougher policing and less mollycoddling of immigrants played well.

The CDU is the only party that can credibly claim that it will strengthen law and order. The SPD is unashamedly soft, and the central theme of its campaign is social justice -- not the most relevant of issues in today's Germany. The anti-immigrant, anti-European Alternative for Germany has been slipping in the national polls lately after a string of leadership disputes; it hasn't proved yet that it can run itself, much less the complex German government machine. It got into North Rhine-Westphalia's parliament with 7 percent of the vote, and it's likely to be held to a similar result in the national election. 

Though many voters resent the CDU's handling of the refugee crisis, and Merkel is unapologetic for it, the CDU leaders are now declaring an intention to rule with a firmer hand. German voters can see no reason to disbelieve them: If nothing else, the CDU has a reputation for working hard to keep its promises. 

Laschet's campaign in North Rhine-Westphalia fits the recent trend of center-right parties invading the ground of their nationalist populist challengers. Merkel can do it nationwide, too, without crossing the line into far-right hysteria and scaring off moderate voters. The Social Democrats cannot go that way -- and Germans do want better policing and stricter rules for immigrants this year.

The general election is coming soon -- September -- and, theoretically, anything can still happen. But on a practical level, the main question is no longer "Can Merkel win again?" She is proving unsinkable. It's more interesting now whether she can push out the SPD from government altogether and build a more convenient coalition than the current one. The FDP's resurgence in the latest state elections presents some intriguing possibilities.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

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