Germany watching local polls in mega-state NRW ahead of 2021 election

By Bettina Groenewald and Rachel More, dpa

All eyes are on the German state of North Rhine Westphalia on Sunday, where local elections are expected to shed light on the political playing field as the country gears up for federal elections next year.

Some 14 million people are eligible to vote for district council representatives and city mayors in Germany’s most populous state, home to the country’s western industrial heartland.

Polls opened at 8 am (0600 GMT) and were set to close at 6 pm.

Germany’s political future is wide open ahead of federal elections expected in about a year, after long-serving Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that she would retire following her current fourth term.

Armin Laschet, head of the state government in North Rhine Westphalia, is in the running to become leader of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and potentially launch a bid to succeed her as chancellor. A vote on the leadership is to take place at a party conference in December.

So far, only one party has announced its top candidate for 2021: the Social Democrats (SPD). The party hopes to stage a comeback after its disastrous electoral result in 2017, heading into 2021 with Finance Minister Olaf Scholz gunning for the top job in German politics.

A tight race is expected in the city of Dusseldorf on Sunday, where the CDU is battling to unseat SPD Mayor Thomas Geisel with its candidate, Stephan Keller.

Meanwhile, the Greens are set do well in the local elections, according to a recent poll by the Infratest research institute. This follows a string of electoral gains for the ascendant party ahead of 2021.

North Rhine Westphalia has been a stronghold of the CDU in local politics since 1999.

In the last district elections, the CDU came out on top with 37.5 per cent of the vote, followed by the SPD with 31.4 per cent and the Greens with 11.7 per cent. The pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) and hard-left Die Linke both got 4.7 per cent each, while just 2.5 per cent of voters backed the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Sunday’s elections are taking place under coronavirus-related restrictions, with voters required to wear a mask at polling stations and maintain the required 1.5 metres’ distance from each other. They must also bring their own pens.

Many citizens have already submitted their ballots by post.

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