The state assembly elections held recently in Germany's most populous province, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), have been unusually important. The ruling coalition, led by Jürgen Rüttgers and comprising the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP), was decisively voted out. With the voter turnout down from 63 to 59 per cent, CDU support fell from 44.8 per cent in 2005 to 34.6 per cent, though its partner's share improved from 6.2 to 6.7 per cent. The main opposition party, the impressive Hannelore Kraft's Social Democratic Party (SPD), won 34.5 per cent, which contrasts with its national slide in the 2009 general election. The SPD has not, however, won enough to form a government with its closest ideological neighbours, the Greens, who raised their share of the vote from 6.2 to 12.1 per cent. Talks between the Greens and the Left Party, the former communists, have failed, and the SPD has turned its back on both, by trying to form a grand coalition with the CDU. Each major party has 67 seats in the 181-seat assembly. The horse-trading continues.

The consequences seem to be far-reaching. First, the CDU-FDP federal coalition is sharply divided over the failure of Chancellor Angela Merkel's attempt to delay the bailout package for Greece until after the NRW election; the bailout, very unpopular with German voters, is being cited as one reason for the NRW defeat. Again with the election in mind, Ms Merkel delayed two schemes dear to the FDP — tax cuts and the replacement of the 7.9 per cent health insurance levy with a flat annual fee of 150 euros per person. Those plans are now stalled; the central coalition has lost its majority in the 69-seat Bundesrat, the membership of which is proportionally drawn from the provincial cabinets, and which must approve all legislation before it goes to the Bundestag, the federal parliament. Another major policy on indefinite hold following the provincial result is the renewal of Germany's ageing nuclear power stations. The Chancellor's political allies may criticise her for excessive pre-election caution, but the blockages their main policies now face are only part of the issue. The rest has to do with a new tone the NRW election may have introduced into Germany's overall political life. The CDU, well aware that the bulk of its support is in the centre, does not share the right-wing FDP's keenness for tax cuts; nor is it likely to regret the demise of the regressive flat-fee health impost. It is now steadily edging away from its partner, which could end up beached as the neoliberal tide ebbs in the global economic climate.