Merkel Party Wins a State Vote as Election Year Starts

BERLIN (AP) -
Chancellor, western Saarland, Merkel, vote
SPD chairman Martin Schulz arrives for a statement after first projections of the state election in German state Saarland announced at the party’s headquarters in Berlin on Sunday. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party easily won an election in Germany’s western Saarland state on Sunday, an unexpectedly strong performance as Merkel prepares to seek a fourth term in a national vote later this year, projections showed.

The outcome was disappointing for her center-left rivals, the Social Democrats, who faced their first electoral test since nominating Martin Schulz in January as Merkel’s rival for the chancellery.

The party, which saw a boost in poll ratings with Schulz’s nomination, looked to have won too little support for a new left-wing government in the region of nearly one million people on the French border.

Conservative governor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s popularity appeared to have trumped what has become known recently as the “Schulz effect.”

“In uncertain times, people trust the political force that governs reliably,” Peter Tauber, the general secretary of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, said. “The CDU is the only political force that distanced itself clearly from working with the populists of left and right.”

Projections prepared for ARD and ZDF public television, based on exit polls and partial counting, showed Merkel’s Christian Democrats polling some 40 percent in the election for Saarland’s state legislature. They showed the Social Democrats receiving around 30 percent of the vote.

Saarland is currently run by a “grand coalition” of the two big parties, similar to Merkel’s governing alliance in Berlin. Pre-election polls had suggested a significantly tighter race.

A Social Democrat-led left-wing government looked unlikely Sunday, as the opposition Left Party — born from the merger a decade ago of ex-communists with other left-wingers, and traditionally strong in the region — won some 13 percent. The left-leaning Greens were short of the five percent needed to keep their seats.

The nationalist Alternative for Germany, or AfD, was seen entering the state legislature with 6 percent of the vote.

Last year, AfD rode discontent over the influx of migrants to Germany to double-digit performances in several state elections, but that issue has faded somewhat from the headlines and the party has suffered from infighting. No other party wants to work with it.

Kramp-Karrenbauer is one of only five conservative governors in Germany’s 16 states, and her party’s showing was up from 35.2 percent in Saarland’s 2012 election.

A loss for her would have been a worrying signal for the national campaign and for two bigger state elections in May — in Schleswig-Holstein and Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, both now led by the Social Democrats. The national election will be held on Sept. 24.

“This is a great start to the election year 2017,” said Michael Grosse-Broemer, the Christian Democrats’ chief whip in Berlin.

Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament but a newcomer to national politics, has boosted his party’s long-moribund poll ratings and injected it with new self-confidence. He is offering a classic, though often vague, center-left pitch of tackling economic inequality at home.

Schulz conceded that the Social Democrats’ performance fell short of his expectations, but said it wouldn’t deflect the party from its goal and told supporters to “look ahead with confidence.”

“Our goal is to achieve a change of government in the federal republic (of Germany),” he said. “And there has been a clear message to us this evening: this is a long-distance race, not a sprint.”