Germans head to the polls in key regional election
Chancellor Angela Merkel faces electoral test in Saarland before September’s federal vote
A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Puettlingen, southwestern Germany. Photograph: Arne Dedert/AFP/Getty Images
Germans in the small western state of Saarland voted on Sunday in a regional election that could deliver an upset to chancellor Angela Merkel and hurt her prospects of winning a fourth term in September’s national election.
The election carries significance as it is the first of three regional votes ahead of the September 24th federal vote, and as such it offers an opportunity for the parties to build - or lose - momentum in their bid to prevail at national level.
The vote is the first electoral test for the Social Democrats under their new leader, Martin Schulz, who has re-energised the centre-left party with a promise to tackle inequality that is resonating with many voters who are tired of Ms Merkel.
“Take my words seriously,” she said, in a last-gasp effort to drum up support for her conservative Christian Democrats (CDU).
Voting began at 8am local time and runs until 6pm, after which exit polls are released.
Like federal Germany, Saarland is currently governed by a “grand coalition” of Ms Merkel’s conservatives and the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
However, polls suggest a left-leaning “red-red-green” alliance of the SPD, the far-left Linke party and the environmentalist Greens - or even a “red-red” coalition if the Greens fail to win enough votes - could emerge after the election.
A three-way leftist alliance in Saarland would be the third at state level after Berlin and the eastern region of Thuringia and could give impetus to a similar arrangement at national level.
A survey by pollster Emnid published in Sunday’s Bild am Sonntag newspaper showed national support for the SPD had risen slightly from a week ago and the centre-left party was now tied with Ms Merkel’s conservative party on 33 per cent.
With the Linke party and Greens both on 8 per cent nationally, the poll suggested the three left-leaning parties could form a federal coalition government after September’s election.
Under Ms Merkel, Germany has enjoyed economic growth and high employment, but the gap between rich and poor has grown.
Mr Schulz is trying to win over dissatisfied working-class voters with a message of social justice.
The SPD, Linke and Greens have discussed refraining from attacking each other during the national campaign.
Mr Schulz is wary of talking about coalition formations before the state and federal elections, in order to maximise SPD support.
“The same applies in Saarland as at the federal level: we want to be the strongest party,” he told Bild am Sonntag.
“Whoever then wants to govern with us, is very welcome to come to us.”