Hendrik Wüst doesn’t want to get involved in the SPD’s games. “The people in the country have clearly made us the strongest force,” he called out to his supporters at the CDU party in Düsseldorf a good half hour after the polling stations closed. “This is the task of forming and leading a future government.” A loud “Yes,” sounds, cheers, rhythmic applause.

The SPD had expected a head-to-head race, and now top candidate Thomas Kutschaty has achieved the worst result in the country’s history with around 27.5 percent. And the CDU is over 35 percent.

In Berlin’s Willy-Brandt-Haus, General Secretary Kevin Kühnert initially tries to keep the vague option of red-green, or if that is not enough, a traffic light alive. It’s always about who can ultimately form a government. The performance seems almost bizarre because of the result.

In the CDU, they immediately recall the words of today’s SPD leader Lars Klingbeil, when Armin Laschet wanted to negotiate for the Union after the federal election on Jamaica: “One should not govern with historically poor election results.”

Kutschaty, who was also classified as a pale candidate in the SPD and, according to polls, did not go down well with the citizens at all, appeared in front of the cameras a few minutes after Wüst. The result is slowly sinking in for him that it’s not “like we imagined”.

And the former Minister of Justice and head of state emphasizes: “Congratulations to the CDU and the Greens.” That sounds less bold than with Kühnert after his own government mandate. But at least election goal number 1 worked: “Black and yellow has been deselected.”

In the case of the CDU, they had relied on the tailwind from the CDU victory in Schleswig-Holstein a week ago, and that is what happened in the “small federal elections” in the most populous federal state. Prime Minister Wüst, who scored points with his pro-Citizen course, now has a clear advantage, since the CDU is in first place, but Kuchaty announced early on that he also wanted to forge a coalition from second place.

But the gap is so big and the Greens, who achieve a record result of around 18 percent, have a clear preference for black and green, according to information from the Tagesspiegel, if red and green are not enough and only one traffic light is possible instead. One thing is clear: the Greens, with their top candidate and state leader Mona Neubaur, will become the kingmakers.

The SPD actually wants to prevent a CDU-led government with the Greens, that would be a signal that the chancellor cannot use for his traffic light coalition and the Bundesrat.

But is that possible with these distances? Especially since there are two clear winners – CDU and Greens.

Wüst inherited the office from Laschet after the federal elections, and after some trench warfare, Kuchaty seized power in the largest state association. Although the chancellor was not up for election (and Kutschaty opposed Scholz as chairman), he had posters posted with the duo Kutschaty/Olaf Scholz to increase his reputation and publicity, with the slogan: “Together for North Rhine-Westphalia and Germany”.

What he meant by that: Unlike Wüst, I have a direct line to the chancellor and can make money, for example when it comes to saving jobs. Scholz repeatedly let Wüst run up in the federal-state rounds, the statement was circulated unchallenged that he considered him an “amateur in a prime minister’s costume”. But it looks like he will now be driven further by the CDU.

And Scholz was more of a headwind after the debates about his Ukraine course: According to infratest dimap, only 35 percent said the chancellor was a support for the SPD in NRW. In the case of Vice Chancellor and Minister for Economic Affairs Robert Habeck, on the other hand, 57 percent said he gave tailwind to the Greens on the Rhine and Ruhr. This is also a finding of the election: The Greens, with their clear support course for the Ukraine, and Habeck, with his efforts to get away from energy from Russia, benefit from the traffic lights in the federal government, the SPD and, above all, the FDP not so much. Incidentally, price increases due to inflation ranked first among the topics decisive for the election, followed by the topics of climate, energy supply and the war in Ukraine in fifth place with education, a clearly political topic.

“In NRW, the CDU benefits from its candidate, good reputation as a state party and the 60-plus generation, which lays the foundation for the election victory with a lot of support,” emphasizes the research group elections in an analysis. In terms of content, however, the CDU shows relative deficits in a black-yellow coalition, “which is primarily rejected as a renewed government in the event of criticism of the FDP.”

In the FDP, they are annoyed that Education Minister Yvonne Gebauer (FDP) in particular drew the ire of many parents: sometimes there were strict mask rules, then they were lifted, and there were also problems with the supply of tablets and sufficient tests and ventilation devices for the schools it. “We got the criticism, but we should have pointed out the responsibility of the CDU more clearly,” said a frustrated FDP man. The Liberals feel undersold. The fact that after the 2017 result of 12.6 percent they now have to worry about returning to the Düsseldorf state parliament with 5 percent in the first projections is a shock for the liberals.

The only TV duel before the election showed once again where the differences lie. The CDU thinks that NRW was a kind of “failed state” under red-green, but since 2017 a total of 400,000 new jobs have been created under CDU leadership and hundreds of new police officers have been hired.

Wüst’s best campaigner was Minister of the Interior Herbert Reul (CDU), who puts his faith in deportations and fighting gang crime. The AfD had very little target in the country and has to cope with heavy losses after Schleswig-Holstein.

But the CDU’s targets are possible savings in hospital care, the brakes on the expansion of wind power due to distance regulations, the inherited problems with the infrastructure with many dilapidated motorway bridges – and education policy. Especially when it comes to wind power, Wüst will have to accommodate the Greens very strongly. So far, Kuchaty has been much closer to the Greens, instead of generally wanting a distance of 1000 meters to residential buildings, he only wants three times the height of the wind turbine, if it is 200 meters high, i.e. 600 meters away from residential buildings.

It is clear that the black and yellow government has been voted out, and the FDP is again losing votes to the CDU. The FDP has a top man respected across party lines in Joachim Stamp, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Children, Family, Refugees and Integration.

During the election campaign, the CDU adorned itself with the concept of talent schools in deprived areas, which Gebauer also implemented, where there are more staff and support, smaller classes and better equipment. Everyone would now take up the concept, says Wüst. Kuchaty denounced the fact that 5,000 teaching positions were still vacant, especially in elementary schools. He wants to create new incentives with better and uniform starting salaries – but Kuchaty and the SPD were unable to create a real mood of change.

Around 13 million voters were called to vote. If energy prices remain high and Russian gas supplies are even stopped, there is a risk of major upheavals in the steel and chemical industries. Hundreds of thousands of jobs depend on it. It is also uncertain whether the conversion to a climate-friendly, hydrogen-based industry will work. Although he still wants North Rhine-Westphalia to phase out coal by 2030, “until then we should be flexible when it comes to shutting down power plants,” emphasizes Wüst. The power plants going off the grid this year and next should be able to be reactivated as a stand-by reserve in an emergency. This is also a point that the Greens should not necessarily like – but due to the war in Russia, new compromises have to be made on the subject of energy, which Robert Habeck will be able to explain in detail to the NRW Greens.