Germany’s rust belt was once SPD heartland. But their poll numbers are tumbling ahead of regional elections, thwarting hopes to unseat Chancellor Merkel in September. DW’s Elizabeth Schumacher reports from Oberhausen.

Deutschland, Straße in Oberhausen (Imago/Ralph Peters)

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It’s not the Germany one usually sees or hears about – rusted, out-of-use factories, streets so full of potholes they are barely passable, high unemployment and poverty. But the Ruhr valley, the country’s former coal and steel country, has a significant role to play in Sunday’s regional elections in the most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW).

The significance of the regional vote is twofold: First, this is the last major litmus test and chance for parties to gain momentum before federal elections in September. Secondly, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) are polling neck and neck (at about 30 percent) in what for decades has been the heart and soul of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).

After the SPD suffered humiliating defeats in recent regional elections in Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein, this election is a major opportunity if they want the chancellorship back after twelve years of Merkel.

“As NRW goes, so goes the country,” Simone-Tatjana Stehr told DW. Stehr is hoping to represent the CDU from the Ruhr city of Oberhausen, a town of some 200,000 that has seen more than its fair share of lost perspectives, as factory jobs dried up over the decades.

CDU Wahlplakate - NRW Wahlkampf (DW/E. Schumacher)CDU candidate Simone-Tatjana Stehr: “People feel their concerns have not been addressed.”

Shades of Clinton, Brexit

For decades, the SPD could count on its reputation as the party of the working class to be certain of a clear majority in NRW. But last year, Oberhausen gained its first CDU mayor in 56 years, and many voters are tired of what they see as the SPD losing its soul.

“I am, very reluctantly, voting for the SPD,” voter Christopher, a native of Oberhausen, told DW one day before the election. “More for what they stood for in the past than anything else. Their campaign this year is without any real content. People here are interested in more jobs, better roads, better integration for refugees. Not social justice.”

According to Christopher, the SPD had “ruined a sure thing” by not taking clearer positions and by being overly confident, which he saw as eerily reminiscent of the Remain camp during the Brexit referendum and the US presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.

party member Ori says “belongs to the SPD and should stay in the hands of the SPD.”

CDU ‘extremely optimistic’ despite voter apathy

Indeed, although downtown Oberhausen was filled with cheerful, though mostly elderly, faces – some voter apathy was also palpable. “None of the parties stand for anything distinctive anymore,” one retiree walking by said, as her husband nodded. Many said they still hadn’t chosen who to vote for.

Simone-Tatjana Stehr acknowledged this. “I’ve never heard of so many undecided voters around here. Some 30 or 40 percent at last count…but, they are at least interested. Asking questions, engaging.”

Stehr dismissed the idea that four years of the CDU-SPD “grand coalition” in Berlin has made the parties indistinguishable.

“We’ve jumped in the polls because we have a more concrete platform about what we want to change…education, unemployment, security, infrastructure,” the conservative politician said.

CDU Wahlplakate - NRW Wahlkampf (DW/E. Schumacher)The Ruhr valley has relatively high crime rates for western Germany. The CDU has made security a cornerstone of its platform.

As Stehr made her way through Oberhausen on Saturday, she and her team seemed positively giddy at their recent success. “Just a few weeks ago, we were ten points behind where we are now,” a member of the CDU youth wing said. The candidate herself said she was “extremely optimistic” about her chances.

As one self-described “lifelong CDU voter” put it to DW, “Five years of [SPD] Minister-President Hannelore Kraft’s government in this state and nothing here is better. No less unemployment. Teachers overwhelmed with 30 kids in a class. We need a change.”

SPD: Mistakes were made

The Oberhausen SPD was determined, however, not to be alarmed by slipping poll numbers. Candidate Sonja Bongers admitted to DW that “mistakes were made,” but that things would be different this time around.

Bongers conceded that the center-left had not focused, as it should have, on the unemployment and lack of perspective that plagues Oberhausen. “Three or four years ago, people were yelling at us in the streets, saying that the SPD was responsible for all their problems.”

“But now,” she added optimistically, “we have a new generation in power,” who will take back the city, the state and, hopefully, Berlin in September, by returning the party to its roots in the working class.

NRW Landtagswahl Broschuren, Postkarten und Stifte (DW/R. Staudenmaier )Bongers called the loss of city hall “a catastrophe”

The SPD does, however, have a powerful selling point in leader Hannelore Kraft, who remains more popular as a personality than perhaps her party in Oberhausen. One voter told DW she was voting SPD “just to help Kraft,” and many echoed her sentiment.

But for many of the region’s undecided, apathetic voters – who feel ignored by Berlin-centric politicians and fear that the country’s two major parties have become nearly identical by trying to please everyone – those concerns may indeed come to fruition. State premier Kraft has vowed that she would not rule in a coalition with the Left party. The Greens, who might not even make the five percent hurdle necessary to stay in parliament, have said they will refuse to govern with the libertarian Free Democrats (FDP), crushing any hope the CDU may have had of working with both of those parties to form a majority.

As for the far-right anti-immigrant AfD, they are polling at a reasonable 9 percent and recently held their national convention in NRW’s biggest city, Cologne. However, whoever those voters are, they seemed reluctant to admit their affiliation publicly:

Nobody in buying what right-wing is selling.”We’re attacked by left-wing fascists as radicals. People are scared to come near us.”

This means that, come Sunday, the SPD and CDU might have no choice but to follow Berlin’s lead and rule NRW in tandem, a crushing blow to any hope the Social Democrats may have of finally extricating the deeply ensconced Merkel from the chancellor’s seat.

Additional reporting by Rebecca Staudenmaier.

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