Once again, the pollsters got it wrong. Yesterday’s election in Saarland was supposed to be the beginning of the end for Angela Merkel, and the start of the SPD revival under their new leader Martin Schulz. And yet, against the odds, Merkel’s conservative CDU has beaten the left-leaning SPD by more than ten per cent, a result which bodes well for her election campaign this autumn, and her bid to win a record-breaking fourth term as Chancellor.
Last week, the signs for Merkel’s CDU seemed pretty bleak. Saarland’s CDU leader, so-called ‘Mini Merkel’ Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, went into this election with just one more seat than the resurgent SPD. With two consecutive polls putting her party a mere one per cent ahead, Saarland looked like the launch pad for Schulz’s big breakthrough. However despite these dire predictions, the CDU increased their vote here by five per cent, winning five more seats, two shy of an absolute majority. So how did the CDU defy the pundits? And what does this mean for the national elections in Germany later this year?
Apart from Germany’s three city states (Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg), little Saarland is the smallest state in the Bundesrepublik, with just 800,000 voters. However it’s always been a microcosm of German national politics. Twenty years ago, this steelmaking and coal-mining statelet was an SPD stronghold, but as those old rustbelt industries have died, it’s become increasingly hi-tech. New industries like computing and electronics are Saarland’s future, and for the workers in these industries, Merkel’s CDU is a natural fit.
To understand Merkel’s survival, in the face of forces which have brought down other centrist parties across the Continent, you need to understand her strategic success in marrying left and right. Under Merkel, the CDU has maintained its prudent economic policies, while softening its stance on social issues, retaining its core vote and stealing the SPD’s thunder in the process. Merkel’s refugee policy – or lack of it – may not play well with Germany’s ‘left behind’ but it makes her attractive to the highly skilled and highly educated voters in Saarland’s growth industries, like information technology and medical research. Merkel has done what David Cameron failed to do. The Christian Democrats are no longer Germany’s nasty party. For Germany’s metropolitan liberals, it’s no longer taboo to vote CDU.
So much for the CDU’s success in Saarland. What about the failure of the SPD? Well, it seems Schulz was damaged by the spectre of a coalition with Die Linke (Germany’s PR system means outright majorities are rare). The SPD used to shun all contact with these former communists, but the two parties are now governing Berlin together and it looks like Saarland’s voters baulked at the prospect of a similar ‘Red-Red’ alliance here.
The other big story in the Saarland was the breakthrough of Alternative fur Deutschland, which gained six per cent of the vote, winning three seats in the state parliament (ahead of the Liberals and the Greens). Was this a success or a failure for AfD? Well, it depends which way you look at it. On the one hand, for a new party contesting its first election, to come third and cross the crucial five per cent threshold for representation in the state parliament was a remarkable achievement (AfD now has representatives in 11 of the 16 state parliaments nationwide). On the other hand, six months ago, AfD polled over 20 per cent in state elections in Mecklenburg, ahead of Merkel’s CDU, which makes this result look distinctly underwhelming. So has its popularity peaked? Yes and no. For AfD, the lesson of this election is that Germany is still two countries. In eastern states like Mecklenburg, this new anti-immigration party remains a major player. In a western state like Saarland (which borders France and Luxembourg) its appeal is relatively modest.
So where does this leave Angela Merkel, six months ahead of the next national election? Last Friday’s nationwide poll by DeutschlandTrend put her CDU neck and neck with Schulz’s SPD, with Schulz the public’s preferred choice for Chancellor. Yet Merkel will be encouraged by the pollsters’ underestimation of her strength in Saarland, and the aversion of SPD voters towards Die Linke. A great many SPD voters would be aghast to see Die Linke in a coalition government. In 2015, Cameron’s Tories won by claiming that a vote for Labour would let the SNP into government. For Merkel’s CDU, a similar threat might play very well indeed.