Schulz ef­fect threat­ens to dis­rupt old loy­al­ties

SPD chief’s resur­gence set to in­flu­ence poll in re­gion viewed as big test be­fore na­tional vote

Financial Times Middle East - - International - STEFAN WAGSTYL — SAARBRUCKEN

An­negret Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer could this week be­come the first vic­tim of the lat­est phe­nom­e­non in Ger­man pol­i­tics — the Martin Schulz ef­fect.

The pop­u­lar Chris­tian Demo­crat, a close ally of Chan­cel­lor Angela Merkel, had seemed cer­tain to tri­umph in Sun­day’s elec­tions in the western state of Saar­land, a gritty in­dus­trial re­gion on Ger­many’s bor­der with France, and hold on to her role as chief min­is­ter.

But what seemed like a run-of-themill re­gional poll has been trans­formed into a neck-and-neck race by the So­cial Democrats’ dra­matic resur­gence un­der Mr Schulz, turn­ing the con­test into a key po­lit­i­cal test ahead of na­tional elec­tions in Septem­ber.

The pop­u­lar­ity of the for­mer Euro­pean Par­lia­ment pres­i­dent has shaken Ger­man pol­i­tics since he took the SPD helm in Jan­uary and made him a se­ri­ous threat to Ms Merkel’s prospects of re­tain­ing of­fice. At a party con­fer­ence last week he was en­dorsed as leader and SPD can­di­date for chan­cel­lor with the backingof an un­prece­dented 100 per­cent.

Now the newly re­vi­talised party faces its first elec­toral chal­lenge — a point not lost on Ms Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer. “If the SPD suc­ceeds they will say it is a sign of a shift in Ger­many,” says the 54-year-old, her­self touted as a pos­si­ble suc­ces­sor to Ms Merkel. “If the CDU wins, we can say the Schulz ef­fect is bro­ken.”

Despite the ef­forts of left­ist trade unions in the once-dom­i­nant lo­cal coal and steel in­dus­try, the CDU has ruled Saar­land in most years since the sec­ond world war, a legacy of the re­gion’s Catholic con­ser­va­tive tra­di­tions. With steel jobs shrink­ing and the last coal pit clos­ing in 2012, new sec­tors have flour­ished, es­pe­cially ve­hi­cle man­u­fac­tur­ing. At 7.2 per cent, un­em­ploy­ment is close to the na­tional av­er­age.

But as else­where, the refugee cri­sis, which saw 1.2m asy­lum seek­ers en­ter the coun­try, has hit CDU con­fi­dence. While con­cerns have eased as in­flows de­cline, they have not gone, and the rightwing Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many is ex­pected to en­ter the Saar­land assem­bly for the first time on Sun­day. Despite the re­silience of the lo­cal econ­omy, many Saar­lan­ders also worry about glob­al­i­sa­tion and its ef­fect on em­ploy­ment. In­se­cu­rity re­mains in a re­gion that has seen coal and steel jobs dec­i­mated, and grow­ing num­bers wel­come Mr Schulz’s pledge to fo­cus on the con­cerns of or­di­nary people. Karl-Peter Wald, a 57-year-old phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal worker who used to vote CDU and is switch­ing to the SPD, says: “It not about the per­son [Schulz]. It’s about the prom­ise to im­prove un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits.” AnkeRehlinger,theSPD’schiefmin­is­ter can­di­date, says: “We feel the change. People used to say, ‘We like what you do here but not [what the SPD was do­ing] in Ber­lin’. We don’t hear that any more.” Opin­ion polls in Saar­land have swung in the SPD’s favour. In midJan­uary, the CDU led by 38 per cent to 26 per cent. Last week, one poll showed the lead shrink­ing to 37 per cent against 32 per cent, and an­other to 35 per cent against 34 per cent. “Martin Schulz has made an emo­tional ap­peal and suc­ceeded,” says Ms Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer, speak­ing on the cam­paign trail. “You can’t cut your­self off from na­tional trends. But our job is to push our achieve­ments and our pro­gram­me­and­not­blameothers.”

The elec­tion has been mostly good­na­tured, not least be­cause the CDU gov­erns Saar­land in coali­tion with the SPD as its ju­nior part­ner. On Satur­day in Saar­brücken, the re­gion’s cap­i­tal, SPD and CDU cam­paign­ers swapped jokes at elec­tion stalls while chil­dren col­lected both SPD-red and CDU-orange bal­loons.

But tem­pers frayed re­cently af­ter Ms Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer banned for­eign politi­cians from pub­lic ap­pear­ances in the state amid a na­tional row over Turk­ish min­is­ters cam­paign­ing in Ger­many ahead of a con­sti­tu­tional ref­er­en­dum in Turkey. Her de­ci­sion was based on the need to avoid in­flam­ing lo­cal Turk­ish opin­ion, she says, but her SPD crit­ics say the move was un­nec­es­sary as no lo­cal ral­lies were planned.

For the CDU, Sun­day’s elec­tion is not just about beat­ing the SPD, but about stay­ing far enough ahead to stop an SPDled coali­tion tak­ing over, with the pos­si­ble­help of the Green and Left par­ties.

The Left is unusu­ally strong in the state be­cause of Saar­land-born Oskar La­fontaine, a for­mer SPD chair­man and fi­nance min­is­ter who aban­doned the SPD for the Left a decade ago. He led the re­gional govern­ment in 1985-98, the only time the CDU lost its grip on power. Now 73, he re­mains a pow­er­ful Left fig­ure in Saar­land and it would crown his ca­reer if he helped in­flict de­feat again.

Uwe Jun, pol­i­tics pro­fes­sor at Trier Univer­sity, says this mat­ters be­yond Saar­land’s bor­ders as the Left, which was born out of the East Ger­man Com­mu­nist party, has long been weak in western Ger­many. “We could see a re­dred-green coali­tion for the first time in the west, or pos­si­bly red-red .”

An al­liance with the Left would not be a vic­to­ri­ous SPD’s only op­tion in Saar­land — it could en­ter a coali­tion with the CDU — but a red-red coali­tion in western Ger­many would cer­tainly set red lights flash­ing in Ber­lin.

‘You can’t cut your­self off from na­tional trends. But our job is to push our pro­gramme’ An­negret Kramp Kar­ren­bauer

To­bias Schwartz/AFP/Getty

Chal­lenger: SPD Saar­land can­di­date Anke Rehlinger, with leader Martin Schulz, in Ber­lin on Sun­day; be­low, the CDU’s An­negret Kram­pKar­ren­bauer

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Saudi Arabia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.