Merkel’s Party Shows It Won’t Be Beaten Easily

  • CDU gains in German state vote, damping SPD’s Schulz euphoria
  • Long way to denying Merkel fourth term, Teneo’s Nickel says

Merkel Wins Bellwether Vote

Angela Merkel’s election victory in Saarland state delivered a reality check in this year’s contest for the chancellery, underscoring the challenge facing the Social Democratic Party trying to deny her a fourth term.

Energized by the candidacy of former European Parliament president Martin Schulz, the SPD headed into the ballot with a poll bounce. Instead, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union posted its biggest win in the state in 13 years, after a campaign that included raising the specter of the anti-capitalist Left party entering the state government.

“For Merkel, this is a positive start into the election year and should help to calm the mood within her alliance of Christian parties,” said Carsten Nickel, a risk analyst at Teneo Intelligence in Brussels. “The SPD will recognize that it is still a long way to taking over the chancellery in September.”

Merkel’s Christian Democrats took 40.7 percent of the vote on Sunday, a gain of 5.5 percentage points over the last election in 2012, while the SPD declined 1 point to 29.6 percent and the Left took 12.9 percent, according to official results. The CDU benefited from a popular state premier, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a Merkel ally who supported her throughout the refugee crisis even as some other party leaders turned on her.

It’s a respite for Merkel, who has come under pressure from party allies to sharpen her campaign against the SPD, which has surged to parity in national polls ahead of the Sept. 24 election in Europe’s biggest economy. For Schulz, the result was a return to Earth and a signal that coalition options for his party may be limited if it wins the national election.

No Free Ride

“The Schulz hype isn’t as strong as they thought,” Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview. “The Social Democrats don’t have a free ride.”

At the same time, Merkel’s popularity has bounced back after she faced criticism in Germany and abroad for her refugee stance. Her approval rating climbed 5 points to 60 percent in a monthly Infratest Dimap survey in March, putting her 8 points ahead of Schulz. Even so, the poll put support for her CDU-led bloc only 1 point ahead of the SPD at 32 percent, reflecting tightened polls nationwide.

“We have picked up support in the last few weeks, in Saarland too, and we are looking ahead,” Schulz told reporters in Berlin on Monday, according to Associated Press. “We’re in it for the long haul. That message goes to those who are celebrating today, understandably from their point of view, but should not celebrate too early.”

AfD Arrival

The next electoral test is far bigger, with two states including North Rhine-Westphalia, the country’s most populous region, going to the polls in May. While Merkel campaigned briefly in Saarland, she has signaled privately that she’s not going to go into full election mode until late summer, arguing that she can’t be distracted from leading the country at a time of multiple challenges from Brexit to an uncertain U.S. partner.

Another domestic challenge, the rise of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party, was also dulled on Sunday with the AfD taking 6.2 percent -- enough to enter the state parliament for the first time, but about half the level it was polling a year ago and well short of its national highs of about 15 percent at the height of the refugee crisis.

The result in Saarland “weakens the right-wing and left-wing fringes,” Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank, said in a note to clients. Berenberg continues to see a 75 percent probability that Merkel will be re-elected, he said.

‘Uncertain Times’

In Saarland, Kramp-Karrenbauer deployed a trusted CDU attack line -- a warning that a victorious SPD would open a path to a government including the Left. The party is led in the state by former German Finance Minister Oskar Lafontaine, who abandoned the SPD to found the new party more than a decade ago.

While Merkel plans to comment on the election result on Monday, leaders of her party said the result was a vote for stability.

“This result is a clear rejection of red-red-green,” CDU General Secretary Peter Tauber told reporters in Berlin, using the color-coded term for an SPD coalition with the Left and Greens. “It shows that in uncertain times, the people trust the political forces that govern in a reliable way.”

— With assistance by Rainer Buergin

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