Setback in Saarland

The second smallest state in Germany made the Schulz train wobble today, as Angela Merkel’s CDU won a clear victory in Saarland. The CDU won roughly 40 percent of the vote while the SPD won 30 percent, die Linke took 13 percent and the AfD (yuck) received six percent. The greens and the liberal FDP didn’t make the five percent cutoff to win representation in the Saarland parliament. The vote ensures a “Grand Coalition” between the CDU and the SPD in the state with the CDU in charge.

But if you’re not up to speed on your German geography, you might be wondering: WTF is Saarland? Well, here’s a map:



As you might guess from its location, Saarland has a heavy French influence and was in fact part of France until 1957. The state used to be known for its coal mines and heavy industry, but now it’s a woodland landscape of magic and fantasy.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that this is not a federal election, it’s a statewide election. In the same way that an election victory for the governor of Rhode Island doesn’t necessarily mean much for the Democrats or Republicans nationally, the CDU victory in Saarland doesn’t necessarily mean that Merkel has an advantage over Schulz come September. In a statewide election, local politics matter. The incumbent CDU Minister-President in Saarland is reportedly highly popular. I guess voters in Saarland weren’t impressed enough by Anke Rehlinger, the SPD candidate in Saarland AND the holder of the Saarland shot put record, to make a change.

However, the result is still significant, especially because one of the federal German houses, the Bundesrat, consists of representatives from the state governments. If the SPD keeps losing state elections, Schulz may have a lot of trouble getting his agenda passed even if he wins big in the September federal election. The result also raises the following two questions:

  1. Is the “Schulz effect” just a polling mirage?

The SPD’s vote share of 30 percent is a bit under what the polls predicted, with most forecasting 33 percent for the social democrats. Three percent is hardly an unheard-of polling error, but the Saarland vote still fits the worrying trend shown by David Cameron’s reelection victory, Brexit and Trump, with polls routinely overestimating the strength of left-wing support.

Thirty percent is a better result for the SPD in Saarland than many would have predicted in 2016. Schulz made this point himself after the results came in, noting that the SPD was polling at 24 percent in Saarland in January. Still, the result is absolutely a disappointment for Schulz, who campaigned in Saarland personally, especially since the SPD showed no improvement since the last Saarland election in 2012. The gnawing worry that the SPD is stronger in media polls than in the actual voting booths will probably continue until election day.     

  1. Did the prospect of a red-red coalition scare the voters away?

SPD leaders were ambiguous about what coalition they would form if they won the most votes in Saarland. To many commentators, that ambiguity allowed the CDU to mobilize voters against a so-called “red-red” coalition: a coalition between the SPD and die Linke, the hard-left party. As Der Spiegel writes, the possibility of a red-red coalition allowed the CDU to transform the election narrative from “‘Merkel against Schulz’ to ‘a struggle against leftist government.’” The high turnout in Saarland may be another sign that this strategy succeeded, as the prospect of die Linke in government motivated conservative Saarlanders to turn out.

After this election, it will be interesting to see how Schulz handles the coalition question. There’s no love lost between die Linke and the SPD. Much of the leadership of die Linke — including Oskar Lafontaine, die Linke’s candidate in Saarland — are prominent defectors from the SPD who abandoned ship during the neoliberal fuckups of the Schröder era. Meanwhile, many Germans deeply mistrust die Linke for its historic connections to the authoritarian government of the GDR.

But after all that doom and gloom, let’s end with an inspirational note from der Gottkanzler himself:

“For us social democrats, there are good days, and there are less good days. I can’t say this is one of the good days. But as I’ve clearly said, less good days and, more rarely, bad days are motivation days — days when you have to say, ‘OK, we didn’t get what we wanted.’ As a former footballer, when the game begins, the whole team has to reflect together and then struggle together. That’s what I said last Sunday, and that’s what I said yesterday to the North Rhine-Westphalian SPD. We look backwards together, and then we score the next goal.” – Martin Schulz

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