March 26, 2017 10:24:45 pm
Germans in the small western state of Saarland voted on Sunday in a regional election that could deliver an upset to Chancellor Angela Merkel and hurt her prospects of winning a fourth term in September’s national election. The election carries significance as it is the first of three regional votes ahead of the Sept. 24 federal vote and as such it offers an opportunity for the parties to build – or lose – momentum in their quest to prevail at national level.
The vote is the first electoral test for the Social Democrats under their new leader, Martin Schulz, who has re-energised the centre-left party with a promise to tackle inequality that is resonating with many voters tired of Merkel. “This time every vote really counts,” an unusually impassioned Merkel told a rally in Sankt Wendel, near Germany’s border with France and Luxembourg, on Thursday.
“Take my words seriously,” she said in a last-gasp effort to drum up support for her conservative Christian Democrats (CDU). Voting began at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) and runs until 6 p.m. (1600 GMT), after which exit polls are released. By 2 p.m. (1200 GMT), voter turnout was 32.6 percent, election officials said.
Like federal Germany, Saarland is currently governed by a ‘grand coalition’ of Merkel’s conservatives and the Social Democratic Party (SPD). But polls suggest a left-leaning ‘red-red-green’ alliance of the SPD, the far-left Linke party and the environmentalist Greens – or even a ‘red-red’ coalition if the Greens fail to win enough votes – could emerge after the vote.
A three-way leftist alliance in Saarland, which has some 800,000 eligible voters, would be the third at state level after Berlin and the eastern region of Thuringia and could give impetus to a similar format at national level. A survey by pollster Emnid published in Sunday’s Bild am Sonntag newspaper showed national support for the SPD had risen slightly from a week ago and the centre-left party was tied with Merkel’s conservative bloc on 33 percent.
With the Linke and Greens both on 8 percent nationally, the poll suggested the three left-leaning parties could form a federal coalition government after September’s election. Under Merkel, Germany has enjoyed economic growth and high employment, but the gap between rich and poor has grown.
Schulz is trying to win over dissatisfied working class voters with a message of social justice. The SPD, Linke and Greens have discussed refraining from attacking each other during the national campaign. Schulz is wary of talking about coalition formations before the state and federal elections, keen to maximise SPD support.
“The same applies in Saarland as at the federal level: we want to be the strongest party,” he told Bild am Sonntag. “Whoever then wants to govern with us, is very welcome to come to us.”
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