Elections in a small eastern German state with fewer people than Berlin may have marked the turning point in a year that will determine who succeeds Angela Merkel as leader of Europe's biggest economy.
Merkel's Christian Democratic Union scored a memorable victory in Saxony-Anhalt on Sunday, garnering 37 per cent of the vote – seven percentage points more than in the last state election in 2016 and 16 points ahead of the second-placed far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
The result delivered a huge boost for Armin Laschet, CDU candidate for chancellor in September's Bundestag election, who has been overshadowed in recent weeks by the popular Greens. But the eco-party performed miserably in Saxony-Anhalt, scoring just 5.9 per cent.
Many in the CDU say the result proved the Greens' lustre is fading. "They've lost their magic," said Christoph Ploss, the CDU's leader in Hamburg.
Saxony-Anhalt could mark the end of a dry spell for the CDU. The party has been buffeted by a corruption scandal involving some of its MPs, a bitter fight between Laschet and Bavarian prime minister Markus Söder over who should run for chancellor from the centre-right, and public frustration over the slow start to the Covid-19 vaccination campaign.
Some in the party now hope the tide has turned. The lifting of the six-month coronavirus lockdown and the prospect of a normal summer holiday have improved voters’ mood, translating into a poll boost for the CDU and a higher approval rating for Laschet.
Buoyed by Sunday’s result, some Christian Democrats are drawing parallels with a pivotal moment in recent German political history – the dramatic derailing of the so-called “Schulz train” in 2017.
That year, the Social Democrats were riding high in the polls and their leader, Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament, seemed on course to unseat Merkel as chancellor in autumn elections.
But the wheels came off his campaign after two regional elections that delivered convincing wins for the CDU: Saarland in March and North Rhine-Westphalia in May. The SPD ended up scoring 20.5 per cent in the national election, their worst postwar result.
Friedrich Merz, a prominent CDU politician, suggested the same fate may befall Annalena Baerbock, the Green MP who enjoyed a media honeymoon after being named as the Greens' first ever candidate for chancellor in April. "This evening the Baerbock train derailed," he wrote on Twitter on Sunday evening.
“Baerbock was hyped up in exactly the same way Schulz was,” said Ploss. “But now she’s being measured against different standards. People are starting to think about what a Green government would mean, and they realise a lot would change for the worse.”
Asked on Monday whether he agreed with the Schulz analogy, Laschet demurred. “These comparisons with trains – I don’t make them myself,” he said. “[Baerbock] is my main competitor, and I take all competitors seriously.”
But, he added, the Greens’ result in Saxony-Anhalt could hardly be described as a Baerbock-induced “mega-surge” since the Greens landed in fifth place, behind the pro-business Free Democrats, traditionally one of the smallest parties in the Bundestag.
Baerbock’s campaign was facing strong headwinds even before Sunday’s result. She was forced to apologise last month after admitting she had failed to report some of her income from the Green Party leadership to parliament, as required, until this March. The Greens were also obliged to make changes to her official CV after local media revealed inaccuracies. It said, for example, that she was a member of UNHCR when she had merely supported an organisation that raises money for the UN’s refugee agency.
However, experts say the comparison with Schulz is inappropriate. "In 2017 the SPD bubble expanded and burst within the space of a few months," said Robert Vehrkamp, a political scientist at the Bertelsmann Foundation, a think-tank.
“The Greens have been polling strongly now for the past two [to] three years and have been doing consistently well in regional elections over that period. They’re no flash in the pan.”
The CDU should also resist drawing too many conclusions from the Saxony-Anhalt race, experts say. The state, once part of communist East Germany, accounts for only 3 per cent of the country’s voting age population. It is also unusual in being a stronghold of the AfD, which scored 21 per cent on Sunday. After polls suggested the rightwing party might win outright, many leftwingers sought to stop it by switching their allegiance to the CDU. Such voter behaviour is unlikely to happen on a national scale.
Sunday’s vote does not spell disaster for the Greens, say analysts. “Their train hasn’t jumped [off] the rails,” said Vehrkampt. “But it’s clear it’s going to be a much bumpier ride than they might have hoped.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021