Merkel Faces First 'Schulz Effect' Test in German State Election

  • Chancellor’s party has held Saarland region for 18 years
  • SPD’s Schulz vows executive-pay curbs in pre-election comments

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party faces its first electoral test by the resurgent Social Democrats under challenger Martin Schulz as the western state of Saarland goes to the polls on Sunday.

Voters in the former coal-and-steel region along the French border will determine whether Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union keeps its 18-year hold on the state government or the Social Democrats add to momentum that’s lifted them to parity in national polls. Projections based on exit polls will be published at 6 p.m. local time.

Martin Schulz

Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

In a Sunday newspaper interview, Schulz said he’d push through disputed legislation to curb executive compensation if Germans elect him chancellor on Sept. 24. He also pledged to seek equal pay for men and women.

“I would tackle two things right away: a clear commitment to strengthening the European Union and eliminating one of the greatest injustices -- that women earn less than men for the same job,” Bild am Sonntag quoted Schulz as saying.

While Saarland is the nation’s second-smallest state with just short of 1 million people, a defeat for Merkel’s party would signal increased vulnerability for the chancellor as she seeks a fourth term. Saarland’s CDU-led government with the SPD as junior partner mirrors the “grand coalition” of the two biggest parties on the national level.

“Take my words seriously: Every vote really does count in this election,” Merkel told a party rally in the state on Thursday.

Coalition Math

Should the SPD win enough state assembly seats to overturn CDU rule and form a coalition with the anti-capitalist Left party or the Greens, that would boost the “Schulz effect” that’s energizing the party and help draw battle lines for the national campaign. CDU strengths include the popularity of state premier Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

Merkel’s campaigned in Saarland on Germany’s record-low unemployment and fiscal surplus, while saying a left-wing government would weaken the state’s tools to fight crime and terror.

The CDU had 35 percent support in Saarland, compared with 33 percent for the SPD, according to an INSA poll for Bild newspaper published Wednesday. The Left, under former German Finance Minister Oskar Lafontaine in the state, polled 13 percent. The Greens, at 4 percent, would fail to meet the threshold to enter the state assembly, according to the poll. An FG Wahlen survey published Thursday gave the CDU a 5 percentage-point lead over the SPD. In the state’s last vote in 2012, Merkel’s party took 35.2 percent, the SPD 30.6 percent, the Left 16.1 percent and the Greens 5 percent.

The political calculus for Merkel’s party doesn’t get easier after Saarland. Two bigger states with SPD-led governments, North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein, hold elections in May. Polls show the CDU trailing in both.

An SPD victory in Saarland “could be the beginning of a domino effect,” Famke Krumbmueller, a partner at Paris-based political risk adviser OpenCitiz, said in an interview.

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