For someone who’s rooting for Angela Merkel’s election opponent, labor-union official Josef Huelsduenker has a lot of respect for the chancellor. Sitting in a cafe in the town hall of Gelsenkirchen, a rust-belt town in Germany’s Ruhr Valley industrial heartland, the longtime Social Democrat said Merkel’s relationship with the unions “improved hugely” after the financial crisis during her first term. He finds her far more approachable than any of her fellow Christian Democrat cabinet ministers.
“A win for Merkel in North Rhine-Westphalia would help her enormously, since it would consolidate her position in the party,” Huelsduenker said ahead of elections in the state on Sunday. Among the Social Democratic membership, meanwhile, “there’s a yearning for an SPD leadership figure, and that will continue beyond the regional elections.”
The last state contest before the national vote on Sept. 24 illustrates the dilemma facing the SPD across the country: Merkel has occupied so much of the middle ground — often at the expense of mainstream opinion in her party — that there’s little room for her national challenger, Martin Schulz, to distinguish himself.