In the southern state of Saarland last weekend, chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) not only won the election, but improved its support since the last election in 2012, giving the state’s conservative minister-president, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who has served in that role since 2011, a second term.
Headlines blared that the narrow defeat somehow marked a defining moment for Schulz, the newly crowned leader of the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party), which has pulled into a virtual tie with the CDU in opinion polls for the national vote in September.
Don’t believe the hype.
It’s one of the smallest of Germany’s sixteen states, both in area and in population (996,000). Nevertheless, Saarland’s size isn’t the only reason its election results will have little impact on a federal election still six months away and even less predictive value. It’s true that the state election, the first of three such state-level votes this spring, showed that the CDU’s political power isn’t evaporating overnight. But Merkel and Kramp-Karrenbauer, whose Christian Democrats led every opinion poll in the weeks and months preceding the vote, should have expected to win Saarland’s election.
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Though the renegade Social Democrat Oskar Lafontaine — one of the founders of what is today the democratic socialist Die Linke ran the state government from 1985 until 1998, when he briefly became Germany’s finance minister, Saarland before 1985 — and since 1999 — has always been friendly territory for the Christian Democrats.
Far more consequential will be the state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous state in Germany (with around 17.8 million people) and one of its most wealthy, on May 14 — and in Schleswig-Holstein a week earlier.
In NRW, Hannelore Kraft, a pro-growth Social Democrat who has often been mentioned as a future chancellor, is hoping to win reelection to a third term (she assumed the office of minister-president in 2010). Though the state is historically competitive, Kraft is a popular official, and the SPD has recently taken a meaningful lead since Schulz — who grew up in Eschweiler, a city on the state’s western edge near both The Netherlands and Belgium — became the party’s chancellor candidate. If the Social Democrats fail to hold NRW, it will be a far more depressing harbinger, for many reasons (a fifth of the German electorate, a longtime bellwether, popular SPD incumbent, Schulz’s home state), than the Saarland result.
The Piratenpartei Deutschland (Pirate Party), which won 7.4% of the vote five years ago, fell to under 1% in last weekend’s vote. More ominously for two important national parties, neither Die Grünen (The Greens) nor the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party) managed to reach the 5% threshold for seats in the state Landtag. For the Free Democrats, which served as a junior coalition partner in Merkel’s second government between 2009 and 2013, it will mean at least a decade without winning a seat in Saarland.
Together, while the SPD’s vote share slightly declined from 2012, and while the Greens lost their representation altogether, the SPD and Die Linke together won just as many seats as the CDU, a nod to the potential ‘red-red’ coalitions (with or without the Greens) that govern in both Berlin (under SPD leadership) and Thuringia (under the Left’s leadership) but that have never governed nationally or in a state in what used to be West Germany. The CDU declared that the Saarland result was a verdict that voters were not yet ready for a ‘red-red-green’ coalition, and it’s an approach that may work nationally, given that even voters who have embraced Schulz remain wary of the Left’s participation in a national government. Die Linke, in its 21st century form, represents a merger between a Lafontaine-led group of leftist Social Democrats from western Germany (at the time, unhappy with then-chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s welfare and labor reforms) and the remnants of the former East German Socialist Unity Party. It’s the eastern roots of a party that once dominated a Soviet-aligned communist government, that remains controversial among western voters.
In one sign that the anti-migrant and eurosceptic, populist right may be receding, the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) scored its poorest state-level performance since 2015, after winning double-digit support in the five 2016 state elections.
The CDU’s victory comes a week after a turbulent first meeting between Merkel and US president Donald Trump, who pressed Merkel aggressively to increase its spending in respect of German participation in NATO; Trump later Tweeted that Germany owes the United States ‘vast sums of money,’ in an apparent misunderstanding of how NATO works. Trump, moreover, displayed odd behavior through the public moments of Merkel’s visit to Washington, first by appearing to refuse to shake the chancellor’s hand, then by suggesting that he and Merkel shared in common illegal surveillance by the Obama administration. (The US Senate intelligence committee and the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation have both refuted Trump’s outlandish claim as a falsehood).
While Kramp-Karrenbauer is generally viewed as a rising star in the party and, at least at a superficial level as a ‘mini-Merkel,’ she is perhaps best known for her impolitic remarks in 2015 against same-sex marriage. On tax policy, however, Kramp-Karrenbauer has departed from CDU orthodoxy by suggesting in 2013 that Germany should return to a higher top income tax rate.