Germany: Saarland Tells No Tales

Published on March 29, 2017

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union did well in Sunday’s vote in Saarland, the first of this year’s state elections in the run up to the federal election in September.

But we would caution against reading too much into the CDU’s surging win in Germany’s smallest, westernmost state.

*** We think, in fact, the results may point to an underlying strength for the Social Democrats and their chancellor candidate Martin Schulz, in part, due to what it may suggest in better odds for forming an SPD-led “R2G” governing coalition with the Green Party and die Linke if the SPD wins the September 24 federal elections. The May 14 North Rhine-Westphalia election should testify more accurately to the SPD’s electoral strengths. ***

A few takeaways on the Saarland vote:

** The CDU did see a 5.5% surge in its voter tally to 40.7%, in what was an even more remarkable 9% increase in the voter turnout to 70%. But it was not a vote for the CDU or Chancellor Merkel as much as it was a local vote among Saarland’s less than a million-total population for a popular state Prime Minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, essentially a mayor of a decent sized German town.

** It was also hardly a vote against the SPD Chancellor candidate Martin Schulz. Rather, it was a vote against Oskar Lafontaine, the former Social Democrat and Saarland Prime Minister from 1985 to 1998 who broke away from the SPD in 2005 to form the leftist die Linke. Lafontaine is seen as something of a turncoat to many of the SPD rank and file, certainly the SPD national leadership, who has cost the SPD dearly in federal and state elections.

** That, in fact, underscores what drove the turnout so high, and why the CDU did so well: namely a fear the SPD candidate, Anke Rehlinger, would have formed a ruling coalition with die Linke if the SPD had won, as many polls had in fact predicted going into the election. The CDU managed to mobilize 30,000 plus votes from those who abstained in 2012, and another 8,000 votes were even drawn from the SPD ranks.

** What’s more, even then, the SPD did not do all that bad. They actually gained votes overall, but due to the high turn-out, their higher vote count got eaten up and they ended in a proportional loss. And if die Linke’s 12.9% — a decline by 3 points since the 2012 election — is added to the SPD’s 29.6% result, a “reunited SPD” would have won the election with more than 42% of the vote.

** And tellingly, die Linke’s humbling in Saarland will be certain to further fuel the movement inside the party to oust the 73-year-old Lafontaine, and to reposition the leftist party under Dietmar Bartsch, who leads a more moderate, reformist wing, to make die Linke more attractive to a Schulz-led SPD.

** That will, in turn, keep the prospects alive for a so-called “R2G” coalition at the national level, a ruling coalition government led by the SPD with die Linke, and the Green Party. Many are assuming an SPD vow never to work with die Linke at the federal level, but we believe that is unlikely to bear out if that is the main coalition option if the SPD do indeed win the September 26 federal elections and has first crack at forming a government.

** And that scenario may soon become a base case for the federal elections after the crucial May 14 state vote in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state considered a good bellwether of national political trends. There, the SPD is already doing quite well, led by a popular SPD state Prime Minister, Hannelore Kraft, while the CDU is relatively weak right now.

** The SPD will have gotten their wake up call in the Saarland, and Schulz will continue to lean modestly to the left on labor issues to draw in the powerful trade unions to build on the SPD’s lead. And while that may undercut the base of die Linke’s support in the Ruhr, the pain would be lessened if there were overtures between the two parties in the run up to and after the state election.

** The Greens are also likely to fare well, which would invariably lift the talk of an SPD-led R2G coalition government going into the summer, when the serious federal campaigning will get underway.

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