May 11, 2012
Social Democrats here in Germany’s most populous state are drawing inspiration from François Hollande’s defeat of incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy in France and hoping that a victory in this political bellwether will spell the beginning of the end of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s seven-year reign.
Hannelore Kraft, right, who is leading the Social Democrats in a state election, is known as a down-to-earth campaigner, which has made her widely popular.
Ms. Kraft is the top candidate of the Social Democratic Party in Sunday’s state election in North Rhine-Westphalia.
With the seismic political upheaval of the elections in France and Greece barely past, Germany’s most important state is already entering the stretch run to its own electoral showdown on Sunday. The task falls to the state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Hannelore Kraft, whose skills at political compromise and pragmatic style are reminiscent in many ways of Ms. Merkel’s own.
But Ms. Kraft knows she must overcome her reputation as a free-spender if she is going to capture the necessary votes in her debt-saddled state. Where Mr. Hollande campaigned on promises to loosen the purse strings, deficit reduction strikes a chord even among many left-wing voters here in Germany.
“We have to consolidate the budget,” Ms. Kraft told an audience at a campaign stop here recently, after a member of the audience asked about state help with affordable student housing. “We cannot give out the same money twice.”
That is exactly what her critics accuse her of doing, including by abolishing higher-education fees and adding both teachers and police officers during her term at the helm of the state government. Last year the state had a $3.9 billion shortfall. When Ms. Kraft proposed a budget with a gap of $4.7 billion or more this year, her unstable government collapsed.
“At the moment it happened it surprised us,” Ms. Kraft, 50, said in an interview about the snap election, as she toured the eastern Cologne neighborhood of Vingst. “But the whole thing went bang, and now we’re having new elections and now we need clear circumstances.”
It is difficult to overstate North Rhine-Westphalia’s importance in German politics. With a population of nearly 18 million, it is home to more than one out of every five Germans (California, by comparison, is less than one-eighth of the American population). Ms. Merkel has not forgotten that it was a stinging defeat here for the Social Democrats in 2005 that led to the unseating of her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, and her own ascension as leader of Germany.
The deep indebtedness of the cities and towns dominates most policy discussions, whether it is about shorter hours at museums and athletic facilities, higher fees or shuttered public institutions. Of the state’s 396 municipalities, 44 are so far in the red they find themselves under state budget supervision.
Voters watching social services slashed at home have no patience for talk of foreign bailouts. Communities here are still piling on additional debt not only for their own outlays but to transfer funds to the former East Germany more than two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“Building up more debts just to send money east makes no sense,” said Wilhelm Schenk, 67, a pensioner who campaigns for Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats. “We have to stop creating debts that will burden the next generation.”
Ms. Kraft’s personal popularity may be her party’s greatest asset. Though the election here is for state Parliament and not a direct vote for a governor, a poll last month showed her beating her main rival, the Christian Democrats’ leading candidate, Norbert Röttgen, by a margin of nearly two to one.
Hildegard Ocklenburg, 59, who came out in Vingst to see Ms. Kraft speak, used the same word as numerous other voters when asked to describe her, “volksnah,” which translates as “down to earth,” but literally means “near the people.”
“She can talk to people in a very uncomplicated manner,” Ms. Ocklenburg said, “open and personable.”
On the campaign trail, this native daughter of Mülheim in the state’s industrial Ruhr Valley jokes, argues and commiserates with voters in the thick Ruhrpott dialect of the state’s mining and industrial region. She presents herself as “Hannelore from the Ruhr,” as Der Spiegel, the weekly newsmagazine, put it, still living in Mülheim with a pinball machine in her basement recreation room, but whose folksy accent vanishes during closed-door political negotiations.
Hannelore Kraft was born on June 12th, 1961 according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hannelore_Kraft
June 12th, 1961
6 + 12 +1+9+6+1 = 35 = her life lesson = Perseverance. Forewarned is forearmed.
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