By GEIR MOULSON – Associated Press
BERLIN (AP) – Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s center-left Social Democrats secured a major election victory on Sunday in a western state their conservative rivals have led since 1999, in the first test at the ballot box since Scholz took office in December.
The result means that Social Democrat Anke Rehlinger will 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.
It is not clear that Rehlinger’s success had much to do with the eventful first 100 days of Scholz’s coalition of three, during which Russia’s war in Ukraine prompted the chancellor to change German defense policy and Germany to take 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 in two months — all in regions currently led by governors from ex-Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right CDU — that will help set the political tone for the year ahead .
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.”
The final results showed that the Social Democrats received 43.5% of the vote and the CDU 28.5% of the vote. With 29 seats in the 51-seat state parliament, the Social Democrats achieved an absolute majority – a rarity in German politics.
Five years ago, the CDU in Saarland received 40.7% of the vote and Rehlinger only 29.6% for the Social Democrats.
The federal manager of the CDU, Mario Czaja, described Sunday’s result as a “painful result”. The new CDU chairman Friedrich Merz had tried to downplay the election before the votes were counted: “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 helped Rehlinger. The Left Party has long been a major player in Saarland, but lost its seats there on Sunday.
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.
Scholz’s two partners in the federal government, the environmentalist Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats, both fell by a hair’s breadth in securing the 5% support needed to rejoin the Saarland legislature. Neither party is traditionally strong in the region.
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