Berlin: The Social Democrats and Greens took over Germany`s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, on Wednesday in a minority government the Center-Left says could one day challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel at Federal level.
At a time of weakness for conservative leader Merkel nine months into her second term, the Social Democrats (SPD) speculate that they and the Greens could form a minority German government after the next Federal Elections due in 2013.
Hannelore Kraft of the SPD was elected Premier by the NRW state Assembly two months after a regional election which saw Merkel`s Center-Right lose power there and forfeit its majority in the Upper House of Germany`s Parliament, the Bundesrat.
The Center-Left will govern the state of 18 million people with one seat short of a majority in the local Assembly, meaning they will rely on the cooperation of the hardline Left party or conservative rebels to pass legislation.
"With five factions in the state Parliament reaching a majority will be difficult," Kraft told the local Assembly in Duesseldorf, capital of the western German state.
The change of power in NRW has boosted the fortunes of the SPD and Greens, who ran Germany from 1998-2005 under Gerhard Schroeder. The SPD then formed a "Grand Coalition" with Merkel but last year suffered its worst post-war election result.
The new Merkel?
Opinion polls now show the Center-Left recovering. A Stern poll on Wednesday showed support for Merkel`s Federal coalition of conservatives and liberals stuck at a record low 35 percent, five points behind the SPD and Greens.
SPD national leader Sigmar Gabriel said this weekend that the NRW minority rule could be a future model for Germany. While some chancellors have ruled briefly in a minority, no Federal government has ever begun life without a majority and Germans are historically fearful of such unstable governments.
But Gabriel said "minority governments which work well together are much better than governments with a numerical majority that don`t know how to get anything done. The best example of that is the current government."
Kraft, a 49-year-old former business consultant, now becomes a heavyweight on the German political scene. The Bild newspaper pictured her and 55-year-old Merkel wearing identical red blazers and asked: "Will she be the Merkel of the SPD?"
But there seemed to be little love lost between them. In an unusual attack on an SPD Premier, Merkel said Kraft had "begun her job with a huge lie" by saying in the campaign that NRW needed a stable government, then settling for a minority.
"You cannot trust a government like that," said Merkel.