German Vote

Merkel's First Big Election Test

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The state election in Saarland on Sunday will be an important test of voter sentiment ahead of the general election in September.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The small southwestern state of Saarland will hold a closely-watched election on Sunday, the first of three regional elections ahead of the general election in September.
    • One recent poll put the conservative CDU comfortably ahead of the SPD at 37 percent to 32 percent, but another gives it just a one-point lead with 35 percent to 34 percent.
    • Pressure is growing on Chancellor Angela Merkel to campaign with more intensity against SPD firebrand Martin Schulz, her challenger in September.
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Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, CDU candidate for state premier in the German state of Saarland, dusting off her image. Photo: Oliver Dietze/dpa

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives are hoping to take the wind out of the sails of her Social Democratic challenger Martin Schulz in the Saarland state election on Sunday.

The vote will kick start a series of important regional elections leading up to the general election in September.

Like Ms. Merkel, the conservative governor in Saarland, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, leads a so-called grand coalition of the Christian Democrat Union (CDU) and the SPD.

One recent poll put her CDU comfortably ahead of the SPD at 37 percent to 32, but another gave her just a one-point lead of 35 to 34.

If the SPD manages to beat the CDU in Saarland, it will give the Social Democrats added momentum in elections in May in the larger northern state of Schleswig-Holstein and in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state with 17 million inhabitants.

Further, an SPD victory would make Saarland the first western German state to be governed by a coalition of Social Democrats and the Left Party, and could herald a similar alliance at the national level in September.

Indeed, Saarland’s Left Party contains many former Social Democrats who left the party in disgust at the “Agenda 2010” program of welfare cuts and labor market reforms introduced in 2003 and 2004 under an SPD-led federal government.

Today, SPD chancellor candidate Martin Schulz is scoring points by promising to reverse some of those reforms, which could lead to a rapprochement between the two parties in the west of Germany.

On the other side of the country in states in the former East, the Left Party has taken on a more pragmatic and less leftist form than in the west, where the two parties have already cooperated at the regional level.

At a national level, the SPD has seen its popularity surge since the announcement on January 24 that Mr. Schulz would take over from Sigmar Gabriel as party leader and chancellor candidate. His position was confirmed unanimously at a party convention on Sunday.

A firebrand former European Parliament president, Mr. Schulz has invigorated the SPD with pledges to increase jobless benefits and boost government spending. As a result, the SPD is now running neck-and-neck with the CDU in national polls. This has triggered conservative fears that he could steamroll his way into the chancellery.

“In soccer you don’t just let the other team run up to your goal. You’ve got to push back, tackle them, unsettle your opponent.”

Markus Söder, Bavarian Finance Minister

“We cannot just hope that the Schulz effect is just a flash in the pan,”  Bavarian Finance Minister Markus Söder, a leading member of the conservative Christian Social Union party, told Handelsblatt.

He went on to take a clear swipe at Ms. Merkel’s low-key style. “We won’t win this election campaign by conducting it like an annual corporate news conference. It will take more emotion.” He added: “In soccer you don’t just let the other team run up to your goal. You’ve got to push back, tackle them, unsettle your opponent.”

He said the conservatives need to counter Mr. Schulz with concrete policies to cut the tax burden, boost security and limit immigration. “The Social Democrats want to roll back the Agenda 2010 to win people over with government handouts and presents,” Mr. Söder said. “The conservatives mustn’t follow that line. We must make sure that hard work pays.”

The head of the CDU’s youth organization, Paul Ziemiak, said Mr. Schulz’s campaign pledges would damage Germany’s economic competitiveness and needed to be debunked as “ideas from the past.”

“The Social Democrats want to roll back the Agenda 2010 to delight people with government handouts and presents.”

Markus Söder, Bavarian Finance Minister

Back in Saarland, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer has been zigzagging across the small state bordering France in a furious campaign to hold on to power. If it weren’t for the so-called “Schulz Effect,” she might be expected to cruise to victory in light of her achievements transforming the highly-indebted former mining and steel region.

Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer has won federal economic development funding of €500 million ($538 million) per year from 2020, and her administration has coped well with the influx of refugees  under Ms. Merkel’s open-border policy.

Also, Saarland is now home to an internationally-renowned research institute on cyber-security and has become a location for testing autonomous driving.

Normally, an election in a state as small as Saarland, which has fewer than one million inhabitants, wouldn’t attract much attention. But in these politically charged times, everything has become an indicator.

Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer has said the opinion polls don’t reflect the real mood of voters. “In the end, the question will be who has mobilized more supporters,” she said. Mr. Schulz for his part is doing just that.

Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s challenger in Saarland is regional Economics Minister Anke Rehlinger, who has been hard at work distancing herself from the government she has been an integral part of. Like Mr. Schulz, she has also been wooing voters with simple slogans and vague pledges.

Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer for her part has made national headlines by wading into Germany’s diplomatic dispute with Turkey. In a move that some say is just a ploy to win votes, she has banned Turkish politicians from holding rallies in Saarland. The rallies in question were an attempt by Turkey to drum up support among Turkish voters living in Germany for a referendum in April that would strengthen the power of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Tensions have been growing between Ankara and several European countries over the referendum and Turkey’s authoritarian tone, and Mr. Erdogan has infuriated German officials by repeatedly accusing Germany of applying “Nazi methods” in response to the banning of some rallies.

Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt’s Berlin office. Contact the author: delhaes@handelsblatt.com

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