April 6, 2017

Not All Local Politics Is National

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during the news conference at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, April 3, 2017.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during the news conference at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, April 3, 2017.

It may be Germany’s smallest state. But Saarland suddenly hit international headlines last weekend, as Angela Merkel’s conservatives (CDU) scored an unexpectedly strong win. Why the sudden interest?

Not so long ago German regional elections would draw a yawn from editors in foreign newsrooms. Today, however, campaigns in obscure parts of Germany send headline-writers throughout the world to Google, as commentators try to fit together international trends from Brexit to Trump—and apply them to the German national elections scheduled in September. But Saarland proves that a lot of assumptions being made about German and European politics are false.

First, the inevitable predictions of Angela Merkel’s imminent political demise have been proved wrong yet again. The CDU won a whopping 40.9 percent of the vote, around 11 percentage points ahead of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD). Clearly, this is not a sign that Angela Merkel’s position as chancellor is necessarily weakened.

Saarland was also a slap in the face for those who talk too confidently of a Europe-wide surge of anti-EU populism. The eurosceptic AfD managed to scrape into the state parliament for the first time. But with a measly 6.2 percent, the party only just made it across the five percent threshold.

In addition the vote undermines the much hyped “Schulz effect”. It was the first regional election to be held in Germany since Martin Schulz was enthusiastically nominated by the SPD to be the left’s challenger to Angela Merkel in September. Support for the SPD has indeed surged thanks to Schulz. But his concrete policy proposals so far are being seen by many as populist giveaways to cheer up the left. And Saarland shows that the SPD needs to do more to win over centrist voters.

Finally the elections in Saarland were primarily more about Saarland than Germany or Europe. It was a resounding vote of confidence for a popular regional leader and a capable state coalition government. All of which proves that too many parallels between German regional elections and German national politics — let alone international politics — should be treated with caution.

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