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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Misconceptions about North Rhine-Westphalia

Outside of Germany the important conservative voter loss in North Rhine Westphalia is most often ascribed to the German populace's distaste over the aid to Greece (see The New York Times, Le Monde, or even academics such as Stephen Walt). This kind of assessment can at best be described as simplistic, at worst it is simply wrong, an impression which is easily be confirmed by a quick look at the polls.

According to the Forschungsgruppe Wahlen (the most important German poll institute) 42% of respondents considered employment the most important subject of these elections, while an astonishing 41% were of the opinion that the education system were the most important issue. Finally, the third-most often named problematic was the financial situation of local communes (more than twice removed from the European level) with 17%.

When asked to to estimate the importance of specific topics more than 75% considered education policy to be relevant. Only then followed the Greek crisis with 54% believing it to be an important topic. Lastly, 38% deemed the conservative party's donation affairs to be truly relevant.

The importance of education policy helped the social democrats who were seen as more competent in this matter (34% vs 27% for the conservatives) and allowed them to claim 140,000 voters from the CDU. In general, the elections were decided by those not voting more than anyone else though. The CDU lost 330,000 voters who simply didn't show up and an additional 110,000 voting for parties without any chance of entering the parliament.

To sum up, it is far from certain how important the German loans to Greece were in these elections. Arguably, it is not even certain whether their impact was positive or negative in the first place. After all 58% of respondents are satisfied with Merkel's role in the crisis and only 32% are not content with her. On the other hand, 48% are not convinced by the current measures (before Sunday night) against the crisis with only 40% being supportive. Yet, maybe most importantly, 72% of respondents usually voting for the CDU are content with how Germany has handled the crisis most recently.

While the German populist media has been rallying for months against money being spent on the lying and cheating Greeks, it is far from established how this has impacted elections in North Rhine Westphalia. What can be said with certainty is that it was not the most important issue of these elections and that international media playing it up are offering a misguided analysis.

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