By GEIR MOULSON – Associated Press
BERLIN (AP) – Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s centre-left Social Democrats are heading for a clear electoral victory in the first test at the ballot box since Scholz’s national government in a western state that its conservative rivals have led since 1999 took office in December on.
Social Democrat Anke Rehlinger was on course to become the new prime minister of Saarland, a region on the French border that is one of Germany’s smallest states with almost a million inhabitants. Extrapolations for ARD and ZDF television based on voter surveys and early counting of the votes for the state parliament put the approval of the Social Democrats at around 43% and thus well ahead of the approximately 27.5% of the votes of the CDU.
It’s not clear whether Rehlinger’s success had much to do with the eventful first 100 days of Scholz’s tripartite coalition, during which Russia’s war in Ukraine prompted the Chancellor to change German defense policy and Germany took in many refugees . The country is also grappling with an ongoing wave of coronavirus infections, recently recording over 200,000 new cases on many days.
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After all, it was the first of three state elections within two months – all in regions currently led by governors from the CDU, the party of ex-Chancellor Angela Merkel – that will set the political course for the coming year. The most important vote will take place on May 15 in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia.
Saarland has been governed by a coalition of the CDU, now the main national opposition party, and the Social Democrats for the past decade. Polls before the election showed that voters prefer Rehlinger, who has been Deputy Governor and Economics Minister of the state since 2014 and Deputy Federal Chairperson of her party, to CDU incumbent Tobias Hans.
“This is the result of hard work over the last few years,” Rehlinger told the fans. “We have regained people’s trust.”
Five years ago, the CDU in Saarland received 40.7% of the vote and Rehlinger only 29.6% for the Social Democrats. The federal executive director of the CDU, Mario Czaja, said Sunday’s result was “a painful result”.
The new CDU leader Friedrich Merz had tried to downplay the election before the vote. He said last week: “We were always good in Saarland when the left was divided, and that’s over now.”
A slump in support for the opposition Left Party may have helped Rehlinger. The Left Party was a major player in Saarland for a long time, but according to projections it lost its seats in the state parliament.
Co-founder Oskar Lafontaine, a former Social Democrat and prime minister of Saarland in the 1980s and 1990s, recently resigned from the Left Party amid ongoing power struggles. That came after the party narrowly avoided expulsion from the German Bundestag in September’s general election.
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