Lower Saxony election a major test for Social Democrats and Scholz

Former state chancellor Schröder has polarised support for party in region over anti-Ukraine stance

Germany’s Social Democratic chancellor Olaf Scholz is hoping for an election boost on Sunday when voters in the sprawling state of Lower Saxony are expected to hand the local SPD a third term.

After a decade in power, and facing into a hard and uncertain winter, state premier Stephan Weil’s spectacularly unspectacular political style has chimed with voters in Lower Saxony.

On the campaign trail — from VW’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, east of the state capital Hanover, to the North Sea coast — Weil says there is only one election issue.

“I’ve never seen so many question marks in voters’ faces, particularly on the energy issue,” said Weil, a 63-year-old former public prosecutor and judge. “The question is how will we get through the next difficult period, this is a confidence vote.”


As Europe continues to battle the knock-on effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Germany’s race to end its energy dependency on Moscow dominates this weekend’s poll.

And Lower Saxony, through a mixture of foresight, geography and chance, finds itself at the heart of Germany’s expedited energy transformation.

Not only will it host three of Germany’s four offshore liquefied natural gas [LNG] terminals, currently under construction, Weil insists his state is already independent of Russian gas thanks to contracts with Norway. Add a growing number of North Sea wind parks popping up and it is increasingly clear that Germany’s green energy transition cannot succeed without Lower Saxony.

With one eye on his state’s growing strategic importance, and another on Sunday’s poll, Weil has consistently been the loudest regional voice for greater energy bill relief for citizens.

Now his regional SPD stands to gain from a €200 billion gas cap plan promised last week by the SPD-lead coalition in Berlin — though details have yet to be unveiled.

Long shadow

Lower Saxony, home to one in 10 Germans, is the country’s fourth most populous state and — particularly for the SPD — a traditional political stronghold.

While the Lower Saxon SPD leads the field with 31 per cent, 13 points ahead of the federal party in polls, Weil’s low-key style has made him even more popular: one in two voters would elect him as state premier directly if they could.

In recent months, he has struggled with the long shadow of local grandee Gerhard Schröder, Lower Saxon premier before his seven years as chancellor.

Today a Russian energy lobbyist, Schröder has polarised Lower Saxon SPD members thanks to his anti-Ukraine stance. While some still support him, others have tried — and failed — to eject Schröder from their party.

Striking a delicate balance, Weil says he “regrets personally” that Schröder has “not yet spoken out with the necessary clarity against Russia’s brutal, unjustified war of aggression against Ukraine”.

Even if he hopes the Schröder wild card is off the table, Sunday’s results hinges on a number of variables beyond Weil’s control, from voter turnout to the results of smaller parties.

A surge in support for the Greens to 16 per cent makes it likely Weil can embrace them and drop his grand coalition partner, the Christian Democratic Union.

After poll defeats elsewhere, a strong Lower Saxon result would be a welcome lift for Scholz, whose first crisis-wracked year in power has seen a plunge in his popularity.

One in two Germans say he is not the right man in the chancellery, compared to 38 per cent who are happy with him as head of government. The representative poll by Insa found 64.5 per cent of Germans have “little trust” in the work of Berlin’s three-way SPD-Green-FDP coalition.

That mistrust could worsen given the FDP is struggling in polls to clear the five per cent hurdle into the next Lower Saxon parliament in Hanover.

“If the FDP doesn’t get in there,” predicted one senior Green official in Berlin, “it will make our lives more difficult with them here.”