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Germany: Berlin's blunders impact Hesse regional election

October 1, 2023

Contenders in Hesse's regional elections are focusing on national issues like migration and dwindling support for the federal government in Berlin.

Tarek Al-Wazir (l), Nancy Faeser (SPD), Boris Rhein (r) in Hesse's State Theater building
Hesse's top candidates are Tarek Al-Wazir (l) of the Greens, Nancy Faeser (SPD) and incumbent Boris Rhein (r) from the center-right CDUImage: Boris Roessler/dpa/picture alliance

Tarek Al-Wazir, the state Economy Minister (Green Party), is the most popular politician in Hesse, despite his party's downward spiral in the polls. On the campaign trail, a few days before the regional election on October 8, he stood in the sunshine on a stage in Frankfurt and told potential voters what his party had achieved since entering a coalition with the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in 2014.

He ticked off his party's bread-and-butter issues, like public transport and climate protection, but then zoomed in on the economy: "It's all eco," he insisted — eco as in economy and ecology.

Hesse has been bucking the nationwide trend and seen an economic upswing rather than a downturn, 52-year old Al-Wazir pointed out. Its marginal growth of 0.4% puts it among the top three of Germany's 16 states in terms of economic output, after Hamburg and Bavaria.

Tarek Al-Wazir speaking into a microphone at a campaign event
"Eco. As in economy" Tarek Al-Wazir believes his Green Party can reconcile ecology and economyImage: Sabine Kinkartz/DW

Frankfurt Airport in a cosmopolitan region

The economic engine of the state is the Frankfurt metropolitan region, where Germany's largest airport is located. That area alone employs around 81,000 people from 90 nations. Some 17% of Hesse's population of 6.3 million has a non-German passport; in Frankfurt itself, it is as many as 29% of all residents.

Tarek Al-Wazir was born near Frankfurt, the son of a German and a Yemeni. He says he experienced racism and discrimination early on in his political career, facing derogatory comments from CDU lawmakers too. But his relationship with the CDU, with whom his party is in coalition in Hesse, is now good, he says: "Cooperation is smooth."

Al-Wazir's popularity, however, is expected to do little to sway voters in Hesse, who share the national disenchantment with the federal center-left government in Berlin. The three-way coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) under Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been at odds over a wide range of issues since it took office in December 2021 ranging from climate protection, finances, and asylum policy.

According to recent polls, less than half of the German electorate is still satisfied with the federal government.

This impacts the campaign trail in Hesse, where every second respondent to a poll in mid-September said their personal voting preference would depend on national politics. According to the survey by pollster infratest-dimap, Hesse's CDU can expect over 30% support in the state elections. The Greens had been flying high, but have now slumped to 17%.

Nancy Faeser and her election posters reading "change now!" (Wechsel jetzt!)
Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) is campaigning to take over the government in HesseImage: Boris Roessler/dpa/picture alliance

Interior Minister Nancy Faeser facing an uphill battle

The SPD has been polling at 16%, and that is bad news for the party's top candidate, Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser. She has taken pains to sound an upbeat note, praising the work of the coalition government in Berlin and saying she could imagine such a coalition for Hesse as well.

The CDU gleefully jumped on that statement, and have vowed to stay the course in Hesse and safeguard against the "chaos" of the center-left coalition government in Berlin. Even within the SPD, many are now wondering whether Faeser's candidacy was a mistake.

Reconciling the tasks of a federal minister with a regional election campaign has proved to be a difficult balancing act for Faeser. The recent struggle to curb the number of refugees entering Germany has put her under great pressure.

The CDU claimed Faeser was neglecting her work in Berlin and had turned into a security risk both for Germany and for Hesse.

Faeser hit back, alleging that Hesse's State Premier Boris Rhein (CDU) had not sufficiently distanced himself from far-right populists: "Hesse has a problem with right-wing extremism," the federal interior minister said as early as 2022.

Boris Rhein laughing with two elderly men on a street in Frankfurt
Premier Boris Rhein has been on the campaign trail trying to get more voters to know who he isImage: Sabine Kinkartz/DW

Growing far-right threat in Hesse

In fact, Hesse's state intelligence service, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, has noted an increase in right-wing extremist violence. The terrorist attack in the Hessian town of Hanau, in which eight men and one woman were killed in 2020, was just one of several right-wing extremist crimes in recent years. A state parliament investigative committee is looking into possible police failures. But the CDU and the Greens have been keen to keep the issue out of the state parliamentary election and postponed the publication of the final report, despite criticism from the opposition SPD.

Boris Rhein has been focusing on nationwide issues in his campaign: He has been calling for tighter border controls and faster deportation of rejected asylum seekers, as well as adding Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and India to the list of safe countries of origin, which would allow swift repatriation of rejected asylum seekers.

While Rhein is confident that he will win the election, he holds his cards close to his chest when it comes to possible coalition partners: "We have worked well with the Greens," he said, but then added: "I definitely also have good contacts with the Hessian Social Democrats."

The only party he has categorically ruled out any cooperation with is the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) which has been polling at 15% in the state.

This article was originally written in German.

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