Scholz’s party keeps Ukraine policy despite state vote loss

Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s party said Monday it sees no need for changes to the German leader’s often-criticized approach to the war in Ukraine after an election in Germany’s most populous state brought a clear defeat for his center-left Social Democrats.

Germany’s main opposition party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union, took 35.7% of the vote to win Sunday’s election in North Rhine-Westphalia state, home to nearly 18 million people. It finished nine points ahead of Scholz’s Social Democrats, despite expectations of a closer race in what was long a center-left stronghold.

A combination of local and national factors appeared to have led to the result, which came with a feeble turnout of only 55.5%. The CDU’s national leader, Friedrich Merz, argued that foreign and security policy played a significant role and that was “decidedly negative” for Scholz’s party.

Scholz declared in February that the Russian invasion of Ukraine marked a “turning point” and announced a big increase in military spending. The German government broke with tradition to supply arms to Ukraine, but the chancellor faced criticism from the opposition and parts of his own coalition for initially hesitating to send heavy weapons and for sometimes appearing indecisive.

However, the Social Democrats’ co-leader, Lars Klingbeil, said Monday that “there is no need to change anything.”

He said he saw clear support during the campaign for the policy of “delivering weapons but also weighing things up, for not turning off the gas tap overnight so as not to endanger jobs in an industrial state like North Rhine-Westphalia.”

But he conceded that the party needed to do a better job of communicating what it is doing for ordinary voters.

“The government’s policy has made clear that we stand beside Ukraine without ifs or buts, but we allowed there to be too much talk about weapons deliveries and too little about rising living costs and too little about rising energy prices,” Klingbeil said.

Government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit said Scholz “is firmly convinced that a level-headed, carefully considered course in Ukraine policy is a course that is important and is also supported by large parts of the population.” He stressed that Sunday’s vote was above all a regional election.

Of the other two parties in Scholz’s coalition government, the environmentalist Greens nearly tripled their score to 18.2% on Sunday, while the pro-business Free Democrats took only 5.9% — losing over half their support compared with five years ago. The CDU currently governs the state in a coalition with the Free Democrats, which lost its majority in the state legislature.

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