‘Schulz effect’ fizzles out in Saarland poll

German state poll win for Angela Merkel’s CDU bodes well for party in federal election

State premier of Saarland Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer with Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel after their party, the CDU, emerged as the big winner in the state election. Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

Germany’s golden rule of state elections kicked in on Monday after the previous day’s election in the tiny southwestern state of Saarland. The big winner – Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) – called a leap in support to almost 41 per cent a positive signal for September’s federal election.

“Yesterday was a nice day,” said Merkel, a girlish smile replacing her recent exhausted demeanour. “On a day like yesterday, one has little reason to be sad.”

In line with the golden rule for state election losers, Social Democrat (SPD) leader Martin Schulz insisted there was no link between national elections and and disappointing Saarland performance, in which his party received under 30 per cent of the vote.

But not even Schulz – hyped as St Martin by jubilant supporters in the last week – could cover up the hangover. After weeks of a fizzing “Schulz effect” –  his promises of a fairer political style triggering a spike in support and membership applications – the plain-speaking SPD chancellor hopeful landed back to reality with a bump.


A week after he was elected SPD leader on a historic wave of 100 per cent support, Schulz wrote on Twitter: “This is a less good day for the SPD, but less good days are motivation days. The goal remains: change of government.”

One bad-tempered Twitter user snapped back: “You are aware that the SPD is part of the government?” The SPD governs Germany as the junior coalition partner to Merkel’s CDU.

That Tweet – and the Saarland result – poked into the sorest wound of Schulz’s campaign for the top job. The ex-European Parliament president’s recent arrival from Brussels, promising a fresh start, cannot distract from how the party he heads has ruled in Berlin with just four years’ break, since 1998.

Three-way coalition

The poll in Saarland – Germany’s smallest state, with just 800,000 voters – was dominated by local issues but flagged the Achilles heel of the SPD campaign: its refusal to admit that the freshest political start would be a taboo-breaking, three-way coalition with the Greens and the Left Party.

By painting that nightmare scenario for her CDU voters, Saar state premier Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer reactivated scores of stay-at-home voters, boosted participation by eight points and squeezed support for the hard-right populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) to just 6 per cent.

The Saarland result may have minimum effect on federal German politics, but Merkel said the result was “encouraging”: ending a disastrous run of state election losses for the CDU, suggesting the party has turned the corner after two years of anger and insecurity over the chancellor’s refugee strategy.

Analysts attributed part of the turnout boost to fears over the rise of populism, Brexit and Donald Trump.

The Saarland vote brought down the curtain on local Left Party leader Oskar Lafontaine. He walked out as finance minister in 1999 and later left the SPD, but hoped to lead the Left Party into a “red-red” alliance in Saarland.

Voters had other ideas; his party dropped three points to under 13 per cent, and Lafontaine, once dubbed "the most dangerous man in Europe" by the British Sun newspaper, conceded: "My personality doesn't attract like it used to."

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin