The state elections began in North Rhine-Westphalia on Sunday in bright sunshine and a blue sky. Around 13 million people are entitled to vote in the most populous federal state.

Voter turnout has so far been about the same as in the last NRW election in 2017. The state returning officer reports that by 12 noon it was almost 36 percent. This is the cut from samples in eight districts and cities, including Düsseldorf, Cologne, Essen and Duisburg. In 2017 it was 34 percent at the same time.

Overall, turnout in 2017 was 65.2 percent. The polling stations are open until 6 p.m. Until then, postal voters could still hand in their documents if they missed a timely dispatch by post, it said.

In recent opinion polls, a head-to-head race between the CDU and the SPD emerged. Until the very end, Prime Minister Hendrik Wüst (CDU) and challenger Thomas Kutschaty (SPD) were only separated by a few points.

With around 30 to 32 percent, the CDU was just ahead of the SPD with 28 to 29 percent. In most surveys, the CDU has a lead of two to three percentage points over the SPD – a statement on the ranking of the two parties is not possible because of the statistical error rate. In addition, according to polls, many voters were still undecided about whom to vote for.

Wüst cast his vote in his hometown of Rhede on Sunday morning. The 46-year-old lawyer came to the polling station with his wife Katharina and, just like when he was inaugurated a few months ago, pushed their one-year-old daughter Philippa in a blue stroller.

“We’re fine. It’s a wonderful day in North Rhine-Westphalia, wonderful weather. It’s a great day to vote,” said Wüst, smiling and in a good mood after ticking the box at around 10:30 a.m.

Wüst asked all citizens “to exercise their right to vote and thanked the helpers in the state’s polling stations “who make sure that we can vote today”.

In the warm, sunny weather, he will spend the afternoon with his family in peace, said Wüst. “We’ll be at home and do a bit of family.” Later he will drive to Düsseldorf, where he will be expected in the CDU state office and in the state parliament. “Well, have a nice Sunday, bye,” said Wüst to the journalists.

The SPD top man Kuschaty cast his vote together with his wife Christina in his former primary school classroom in the Borbeck district of Essen. “That was the room of the 1d, I started school in this room in 1974,” Kuchaty said after the vote.

“I’m very optimistic that there will be a good result for social democracy today,” said Kuchaty. He is counting on the SPD becoming the strongest force in North Rhine-Westphalia.

During the election campaign, he completed about 300 appointments and learned to get by with four hours of sleep, he said. In particular, he thanked federal politicians, including Chancellor Olaf Scholz, for their broad support during the election campaign. According to all predictions, the outcome of the election will be very close. “That’s why you have to take a break after the election night and conduct exploratory talks with all democratic parties.”

Kuchaty wanted to spend election day at home until the afternoon before he wanted to go to Düsseldorf. The children who already live outside the house would come to eat. On the table comes tarte flambée with a green salad from the garden, said Kuschaty’s wife Christina. The couple walked to the polling station.

In Berlin, too, politicians are looking tensely to the West. Among the state elections this year, the NRW election is the most important indicator for the federal parties and the governing traffic light coalition under SPD Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Because of the high number of eligible voters, it is also known as the “small federal election”.

Last Sunday, the CDU with Prime Minister Daniel Günther clearly won the election in Schleswig-Holstein. Previously, the SPD with Anke Rehlinger had won the state elections in Saarland in March. In NRW, however, neither incumbent Wüst nor Kuchaty has a favorite role.

However, the CDU/FDP coalition that has been in office in NRW for five years is unlikely to have a majority. The Greens are in polls at 16 to 18 percent and could achieve their best state election result with their top candidate Mona Neubaur. The FDP could only count on 7 to 8 percent, the AfD with 6 to 8 percent.

With around 3 percent, the left would again miss entering the state parliament. The first forecast of the outcome of the election is expected shortly after the polling stations close at 6 p.m.

The fact that NRW has long since ceased to be the “home state” of the SPD is shown by the fact that the CDU and SPD have alternated in government in recent years. In 2017, the CDU and FDP formed a coalition, until 2017 a red-green alliance was at the helm.

There could be several options for the next state government. According to surveys, in addition to a rather unpopular grand coalition of CDU and SPD, a black-green alliance or a Jamaica alliance of CDU, Greens and FDP would be possible. The SPD could also form a traffic light coalition with the Greens and FDP, as in the federal government. In some polls, it is not enough for a red-green majority.

The former State Transport Minister Wüst only replaced Armin Laschet as Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia at the end of October 2021 after he had failed as a Union Chancellor candidate in the federal elections. Wüst would like to continue governing with the FDP, but the Liberals – like the Greens – are keeping all options open.

In view of their strength, the Greens could become the “kingmaker” in the formation of a government and have already hammered in substantive pegs for possible coalition negotiations.

The head of the SPD in North Rhine-Westphalia and former state justice minister Kutschaty, who is also the deputy federal chairman of the SPD, can imagine the formation of a traffic light coalition like in the federal government. Kuchaty received strong support from Chancellor Scholz during the election campaign.

Kuchaty and Scholz are also shown together on election posters. Wüst wants to cast his vote on Sunday morning in his home town of Rhede in the Münsterland region, while Kuschaty votes in his home town of Essen.