Just don’t do the Laschet. The chancellor candidate at the time had not folded the ballot paper correctly, so that his crosses for the CDU could be seen in the photos. This led to debates as to whether the vote was invalid. Both Hendrik Wüst (48) and his SPD challenger Thomas Kutschaty (53) are therefore careful not to do anything wrong.

“But it’s difficult to fold so that nobody can see anything,” says Kutschaty, when he casts the vote at the elementary school in Essen-Borbeck, for which he was enrolled in 1974. Wüst pushes his one-year-old daughter Philippa in a stroller to the polling station in Rehde, Westphalia, to vote.

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 according to the Tagesspiegel information there is a preference for black-green among the greens if red-green is 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 will strive 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.

Wüst inherited the office from Laschet after the federal elections, and Kutschaty is also considered a rather pale candidate by some in the SPD. 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.

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.

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.

Kuchaty also made the keyword “securing jobs” a top issue in the election campaign, with an unusual approach. Although the chancellor is not up for election (and Kutschaty opposed Scholz as chairman), he had posters posted with the Kutschaty/Scholz duo, 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 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.