Paul Carrel –
It was the German Social Democrats’ first electoral test under their new leader, Martin Schulz. They failed.
Instead, voters in the state of Saarland flocked to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives on Sunday for fear of a new left-wing alliance.
“A damper for Schulzomania,” the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily wrote in a Monday editorial as politicians in Berlin sought to evaluate the implications of the vote for the September 24 national election in Germany, the European Union’s pivotal member state.
Schulz has led a revival in his Social Democrats’ (SPD) poll ratings since winning the nomination as their leader in January. But the prospect of his centre-left party ruling with the far-left Linke in Saarland turned off voters there. Both the SPD and Linke lost support from the 2012 vote after suggesting they could team up or form a “red-red-green” alliance with the environmentalist Greens.
In the event, the Greens did not meet the 5 per cent threshold to enter the state assembly.
The outcome is a setback for the prospects of such a left-leaning alliance ousting Merkel after September’s vote, though drawing lessons for the federal vote from the Saarland result is problematic and “red-red-green” could yet prevail nationally.
With just 800,000 voters, Saarland is the size of just two of Berlin’s residential districts.
Merkel’s conservatives also fielded a strong candidate in Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the state premier who has been nicknamed “the Merkel
from the Saar”.
“I know her. She is simply brilliant,” said Hajo Funke, political scientist at Berlin’s Free University, adding that Kramp-Karrenbauer had focused on competent government in Saarland and was not egocentric. “So the ‘Schulz effect’ was curtailed, but it still exists.”
The suggestion of an alliance of the SPD with the far-left Linke unnerves many voters in western Germany.
But it is not a taboo in the east, where the Linke, the successor to the old East German Communist Party that rejects Nato and wants to lift the top income tax rate to 75 per cent, already governs in a three-way leftist alliance in Berlin and Thuringia.
Schulz played down the implications of Sunday’s result for the national election, saying Saarland was a special case. He pointed to Oskar Lafontaine, a former SPD chairman who deserted the party for the Linke, which he heads in
the western state.
Years of poisoned relations between the two parties followed.
“I think there are only limited inferences that can be drawn from state elections for the whole country,” Schulz said, appearing to leave open the possibility of cooperation with the Linke at national level.
Two more regional elections in May — in the far northern state of Schleswig-Holstein and the populous western region of North Rhine-Westphalia — offer the Social Democrats the chance to
regain the initiative.
Polls show the SPD leading in both states, though they underestimated the strength of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) in Saarland and overestimated support for the SPD.
Despite the local caveats in Saarland, the message for the SPD is that the “Schulz effect” is not yet gaining enough traction despite a 10-point bounce in the party’s national ratings since his nomination in January.
“It needs to deliver more,” Funke said of the SPD. “A lot depends on whether the SPD can be convincing when fleshing out its election campaign focused on social issues and Europe.”
Schulz is trying to win over dissatisfied working class voters with a message of social justice.
Under Merkel, who has been in power for 11 years, Germany has enjoyed economic growth and high employment, but the gap between rich and poor has widened. — Reuters