Schulz effect threatens to disrupt old loyalties
SPD chief’s resurgence set to influence poll in region viewed as big test before national vote
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
Challenger: SPD Saarland candidate Anke Rehlinger, with leader Martin Schulz, in Berlin on Sunday; below, the CDU’s Annegret KrampKarrenbauer