German SPD wins Saarland vote in boost for Scholz

Anke Rehlinger, top candidate of the Social Democratic party (SPD) for the federal state election of Saarland reacts after first exit polls were published, at the SPD party venue (“Garage”), in Saarbruecken, Germany, March 27, 2022.

BERLIN, March 27 (Reuters) – Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) scored a clear victory in a regional election in the state of Saarland on Sunday, according to preliminary results, helping Chancellor Olaf Scholz consolidate his power ahead of other regional votes this year.

The center-left party will have enough seats for an absolute majority in the small western state, the first regional vote since the SPD unexpectedly beat the conservatives in a national election last year after 16 years of rule by Angela Merkel.

“Saarland was a first test of the mood after the federal election,” said SPD leader Lars Klingbeil, describing the win as a “sensational victory.”

According to preliminary results, the SPD won 43.5% of the vote, up 14 percentage points from the last vote, while the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) slumped to 28.5%.

The two parties have ruled Saarland in a conservative-led “grand coalition” since 2012, but the popular regional SPD leader Anke Rehlinger, previously the regional economics minister, said she was ready to rule without a partner.

State elections in Germany are important bellwethers for the public mood. Recent opinion polls have shown the ruling coalition of Scholz’s SPD, environmentalist Greens and liberal Free Democrats (FDP) cementing its popularity.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted the coalition to promise more military spending and to shift Germany away from energy dependence on Russia, ratings have risen for Scholz and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock from the Greens.

However, polls showed voters in Saarland were more interested in topics such as unemployment and education, as well as climate and energy policies.

Regional elections help to determine the distribution of votes in the Bundesrat upper house of parliament, although Saarland does not have much weight in the second chamber given it has only around a million inhabitants.

While Scholz’s coalition has a solid majority in the Bundestag lower house, conservative-led or co-ruled states have 51 of 69 votes in the Bundesrat.

Three of the four states holding elections this year are CDU-led. If the CDU were to lose those votes, that could make it easier for the government to pass legislation.

A more important signpost than the Saarland vote will be the elections on May 15 in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, said Naz Masraff at Eurasia Group.

“A possible change of government (there) from the CDU to the SPD would be critical for Scholz to further consolidate power in his party, and allow larger policy space for the government,” said Masraff.

Currently the CDU premiers of North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein, which is set to hold a state election on May 8, are leading their SPD rivals in polls. Lower Saxony, where the SPD is leading a grand coalition, also votes on Oct. 9.