The Daily Telegraph

Merkel douses ‘Schulz mania’ with victory in regional poll

German chancellor sails through key test of support after the rise of former EU chief dubbed ‘Saint Martin’

- By Justin Huggler in Berlin

ANGELA MERKEL yesterday won a convincing victory in regional elections seen as a key test of support ahead of Germany’s national vote later this year, according to exit polls.

Martin Schulz, widely regarded as the strongest rival she has faced in more than a decade, suffered an embarrassi­ng defeat as his party failed to mount a challenge and saw its share of the vote fall.

If initial projection­s prove accurate, the result could take the wind out of Mr Schulz’s campaign, after national opinion polls put him ahead of Mrs Merkel and led to open talk that he might be Germany’s next chancellor.

Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) were last night predicted to win a commanding 41 per cent of the vote in elections to the regional parliament in the western state of Saarland.

The result was a resounding endorsemen­t for Mrs Merkel, who not only held on to control of the state but made dramatic gains of more than 5 per cent even as her political demise was being widely predicted.

Mr Schulz’s Social Democrats (SPD), who were expected to mount a serious challenge, came a disappoint­ing second with 30 per cent, a fall of 0.5 points.

The Left Party were in third place, with 13 per cent, while the far-Right Alternativ­e for Germany (AfD) party just managed to pass the 5 per cent threshold to enter the state parliament.

“This is of course a really great start to the election year of 2017,” Michael Grosse-Brömer, the CDU’s chief whip, told German television. “This election shows that governing calmly impresses people in turbulent times.”

The SPD went into the Saarland election neck-and-neck with the CDU in the polls on a wave of support for Mr Schulz, the former European parliament president and staunch Brexit opponent who took over as party leader earlier this year.

But it was the first real test Mr Schulz has faced at the ballot box and the results threaten to burst the bubble of “Schulz mania” that has resulted in him being endorsed as party leader with 100 per cent support and nicknamed “Sankt Martin”.

Mrs Merkel’s strategy of not taking on Mr Schulz directly but portraying herself as a safe pair of hands appeared to have paid off.

“This time every vote counts,” she said, imploring voters to “avoid experiment­s” and stick to the CDU’s “path of success” in an unusually impassione­d campaign speech that appeared to show she is feeling the strain ahead of September’s national elections.

The result was also an endorsemen­t for Annegret Kramp-Karrenbaue­r, the local CDU leader dubbed “mini-Merkel” by the German press.

“There will be no government in Saarland without the SPD,” Ralf Stegner, a senior ally of Mr Schulz said, trying to put a brave face on the result.

Under Germany’s proportion­al representa­tion system, a “grand coalition” led by the CDU with the SPD as junior partner is likely to remain in power in Saarland.

Mr Schulz had hoped to use the election in the tiny state to prove that the SPD could lead an alternativ­e coalition with the Left Party and the Greens. Such an alliance, known as a “red-red-green coalition”, is his best route to power in national elections in September.

In Saarland the Green Party failed to clear the 5 per cent threshold to win seats in parliament and were eliminated, while the SPD and the Left Party between them could not muster enough votes to challenge the CDU for control.

The results were also disappoint­ing for the far-Right AfD, which spent much of last year seen as the main threat to Mrs Merkel. Hit by infighting, the party has seen its support plummet in recent weeks and it only just scraped into the Saarland parliament.

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