German Voters Reject a Government with Radicals

The local election in Saarland proved that the German chancellor has some hidden resources for the September general election

In need of a new strategy.

Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Sunday's election in Saarland, a small German state bordering on France and Luxembourg, would have been relatively unimportant if it hadn't provided evidence that polls may be overestimating the strength of this year's electoral challenge to Chancellor Angela Merkel. The results suggest she will be even harder to beat than many have thought.

The poll performance of Martin Schulz, the former European Parliament president and now the chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has stunned German political experts. In a matter of weeks, the SPD, which has been a fairly distant second after Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) for years, caught up with its arch-rival and current governing coalition partner. It even overtook it in some polls, prompting sensationalist headlines and excited discussion of the "Schulz effect." The SPD cadre certainly believes in it: It recently elected Schulz to the chairmanship by an unprecedented 100 percent of the party conference vote.

Saarland was governed by a coalition much like the federal one. It comprised the CDU as the senior partner and the SPD as the junior one. The prime minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, is known as "Merkel of the Saar." She is close to the chancellor, her political style and capacity for non-ideological compromise are similar to Merkel's, and she has even been tipped as a possible successor to her. 

The coalition has done well. Saarland is a former mining region. These are depressed everywhere in the world, but Saarland is a lucky exception. Even so, regional polls this month showed the CDU was only ahead by between one and five points in Saarland -- an uncomfortable situation for the ruling party and a surprise gift to local SPD leader Anke Rehlinger, who campaigned actively to leverage Schulz's national popularity. 

Election day changed all that. The polls accurately predicted the performance of Die Linke, the hard-left party that came in third with 12.9 percent, and the far-right AfD, which got into its 11th regional parliament with 6 percent. But the CDU won 40.7 percent of the vote -- gaining almost five points more than its 2012 performance -- compared with 29.6 percent for the SPD, which had done one point better in 2012.

The Saarland Surprise

Angela Merkel's CDU did better than predicted in the Saarland regional election, Martin Schulz's SPD did worse

Sources: Poll data, official election results

German voters -- like the Dutch, who recently returned pragmatic Prime Minister Mark Rutte to power despite a strong populist challenge -- value good, solid governance and reward stable performance. Had the voters of Saarland handed a win to the SPD, the party could have attempted a "red-red" coalition with Die Linke, the successor party of the East German Communists, which is traditionally strong in Saarland because one of its leaders, Oskar Lafontaine, hails from the region. Rehlinger said during the campaign that she was open to such a configuration, and Kramp-Karrenbauer warned voters that all the achievements of her administration could go out the window under such a scenario. 

To many locals, that turned out to be a scary prospect. Die Linke is useful for a protest vote, but people in most Western German states don't want it anywhere close to power. It doesn't even hold parliament seats in populous states such as Bavaria, Baden-Wuerttemberg and Lower Saxony.

The threat that a victorious Schulz will try to exclude the CDU from government and form a coalition with Die Linke and the Greens if they do sufficiently well in the September election exists on the federal level, too. It won't be a problem for the SPD in the eastern states, where Die Linke is part of the mainstream. Die Linke's Bodo Ramelow, has even become prime minister of an eastern state, Thuringia. But westerners, 20 percent of whom have never even been  east, outnumber easterners five-to-one. This divide, which 25 years since the fall of the Berlin wall hasn't erased, limits Schulz's freedom of maneuver and weighs heavily on his chances of winning in September, even if the polls may not show it. 

Two more western states -- Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia -- will hold local elections before the national vote. The polls put the SPD ahead in both of them. But in both states, Die Linke usually doesn't do well. If the SPD leaders indicate they would prefer to build a coalition with the far left and the greens than with the CDU, there may be an effect similar to that seen in Saarland.

To win in the west, it seems Schulz will need to make it clear that he'd govern with the CDU, and yet there is no way for Schulz to pursue any kind of effective differentiation strategy. Both the CDU and SPD are too strong for their populist challengers. Voters may be intrigued by what the ruling coalition might look like with the parties' roles reversed, but they appear to reject a government role for radicals. 

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