Merkel Deals Schulz A Setback

Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats defied pollsters’ predictions on Sunday, trouncing Martin Schulz’s Social Democrats in a closely watched election in Saarland. Financial Times

Opinion surveys had forecast a close race. But, according to the provisional official results, Ms Merkel’s party secured 40.7 per cent of the vote, a sizeable gain on its 35.2 per cent score in the previous election in 2012. Despite the efforts of Mr Schulz, who has local family ties and campaigned vigorously, the SPD lost ground and scored 29.6 per cent, down from 30.4 per cent last time.

Turnout soared from 62 per cent to almost 70 per cent, the highest in two decades, as both the CDU and SPD drew even the less enthusiastic voters to the polls. […]

“This raises the question of whether the Martin Schulz effect is only an opinion poll phenomenon or is real,” said Uwe Jun, politics professor at Trier University. “The CDU will see itself confirmed in its relaxed approach to Mr Schulz. We will see.”

Much could change in the next six months, but the outcome in Saarland is a major boost to Merkel ahead of September’s federal elections. The southwestern state has been a CDU stronghold for years, but it looked like fertile ground for Schulz’s SPD to score some gains. With Schulz’s national polling surge trickling down in local polls, most pundits predicted a three-way leftist coalition with SPD at the helm. Instead, there was a general backslide on the left: not only did SPD see its vote share slip, but the Greens who were being eyed as a coalition partner failed to cross the 5% threshold needed to enter parliament.

One shouldn’t over-interpret the results of one election. Schulz remains a serious challenger to Merkel: his party’s poll numbers have soared 10% since he declared for chancellor, and his focus on inequality seems to be resonating with former SPD voters who are now coming back into the fold. But Schulz has yet to prove that he can channel personal favorability into electoral realities.

Schulz will have another chance to prove his mettle in May, when voters in Schleswig-Holstein and North-Rhine Westphalia go to the polls. Both states are currently run by SPD coalitions and are considered more favorable territory. If Schulz stumbles there, Merkel’s standing ahead of September’s elections will look even more secure.

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