The NRW election is a debacle for the SPD – and also for Olaf Scholz. The party advertised with the chancellor in the election campaign. But after the resounding voter slap in the face, Scholz now has to solve three traffic light problems.

This is not how Olaf Scholz imagined the “social democratic decade” he proclaimed. Ironically, in the most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the SPD still falls behind its worst result of 2017 with 27 percent. This low follows dramatic losses in Schleswig-Holstein a week ago. In contrast, the success in the small Saarland pales, where the state elections are more like a local election.

For the Chancellor, the NRW result is a warning shot that he cannot take lightly. Scholz was very involved in the election campaign on the Rhine and Ruhr. The top candidate, Thomas Kutschaty, who is relatively unknown in the country, had the chancellor posted everywhere. But this strategy was wrong because Scholz’s standing with voters has plummeted in the five months since the traffic light government was formed.

The magic of the red-green-yellow beginning is gone very quickly. Only the Greens are on the upswing because their issues are “in” and their ministers Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck are perceived as heavyweights in the coalition. If almost two-thirds of North Rhine-Westphalian voters in the federal government attest to “hesitating and undecided” action, Scholz must take credit for that.

In addition, the affairs of the “Self-Defense Minister” Christine Lambrecht and the zigzag course of Health Minister Karl Lauterbach in the Corona policy of the SPD have damaged. They may have persuaded some SPD voters to stay at home or to vote for the CDU and the Greens. This also explains the significantly reduced voter turnout.

Some of the Social Democrats are clinging to the hope of being able to form a traffic light with the Greens and the FDP in Düsseldorf. It would be an alliance of the successful Greens with two election losers. However, the FDP could only lose if it clung to power after this election defeat.

In any case, Olaf Scholz in Berlin cannot continue as before. Ironically, the politician who likes to refer to his leadership skills is proving to be a hesitant and procrastinator in the chancellor’s office. He made full-bodied announcements about mandatory vaccinations, but hesitated to go ahead – and failed. He tried to pretend to Russia that Nord Stream 2 and politics had nothing to do with one another – and had to bow to reality.

Scholz’s behavior when it came to arms deliveries to Ukraine, which had been invaded by Putin, was and is particularly embarrassing. Without the urging of the green and liberal partners, Germany would still be the laughing stock of the other western countries with Lambrecht’s 5000 helmets.

Scholz has even more major construction sites in Berlin that should give him quite a headache. Inflation in general and the exploding energy prices in particular hit those on low incomes in particular, and thus also the SPD clientele. In addition, there is fear among the population and in business that Putin could turn off the gas tap – with dire consequences for the economy and the population.

As is well known, Scholz was a lawyer in his pre-political life. As chancellor, he acts more like a notary: he certifies what needs to be certified. The leadership that you can allegedly order from him has so far been delivered by Merkel’s successor in homeopathic doses. A communication style that is characterized by many empty words and few concrete statements fits in with this.

After this election result, governing will be even more difficult for Scholz. The Greens will appear even more self-confident inside the traffic lights.

The Free Democrats, on the other hand, are the big losers after five months of traffic lights: in Saarland they failed at the five percent hurdle, in Schleswig-Holstein they were almost halved, in North Rhine-Westphalia they fell from almost 13 to just over 5 percent. The “break in the political culture” praised by party leader Christian Lindner in the traffic light is probably seen by his own base as a break in the good election results. There’s no joy there.

The Free Democrats must also reposition themselves. After three elections – regardless of country-specific peculiarities – it is obvious that one’s own clientele is unfamiliar with the traffic light. The FDP alongside two left-wing parties is not to the liking of their own voters. The policy of the Federal Minister of Finance, formally sticking to the debt brake and at the same time driving the debt to unimagined heights via side budgets, does not go down well with FDP voters. They have a different understanding of sound financial policy.

Politics is a fast-paced business, voters are more agile than ever. In a way, Scholz’s situation is similar to that of Gerhard Schröder in the spring of 1999. After the resounding election victory in September 1998, the SPD suffered heavy losses in state elections. Nevertheless, red-green recovered from it again.

However, Scholz has a harder time than Schröder did: He only had one coalition partner, the Greens, and he did not benefit from the temporary weakness of the SPD. Scholz, on the other hand, now has to cope with the Greens, who are bursting with energy, and the Free Democrats, who are balancing on the abyss. If he’s going to do that, he needs to change his style of government — and start leading.