Exit polls indicate that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s center-left Social Democrats are headed for a clear election win in a western state that its conservative rivals have led since 1999
It’s not clear that Rehlinger’s expected success has much to do with an eventful first 100 days for Scholz’s three-party national coalition, during which Russia’s war in Ukraine prompted the chancellor to upend German defense policy and Germany has welcomed large numbers of refugees. The country also is grappling with a persistent wave of coronavirus infections, recently seeing over 200,000 new cases on many days.
All the same, it was the first of three state elections within two months — all in regions currently led by governors from the CDU, the party of former Chancellor Angela Merkel — that will help set the political tone for the coming year. The most important vote, on May 15, is in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia.
Saarland has been run for the past decade by a coalition of the CDU, now the main opposition party at national level, and the Social Democrats. Pre-election polls showed voters preferring Rehlinger, the state’s deputy governor and economy minister since 2014 and a deputy national leader of her party, to CDU incumbent Tobias Hans.
The CDU’s new national leader, Friedrich Merz, downplayed the results even before the vote, saying last week that “we have always been good in Saarland when the left was divided, and that is over now.”
Five years ago, the CDU took 40.7% of the vote in Saarland and Rehlinger’s Social Democrats won only 29.6%.
A sharp decline in support for the opposition Left Party likely helped Rehlinger. The hard-left party was long a significant player in Saarland, but the exit polls indicated that it would lose its seats in the state legislature.
Co-founder Oskar Lafontaine, a one-time Social Democrat who was Saarland’s governor in the 1980s and 1990s, recently left the Left Party. That came after it only narrowly avoided being ejected from the German parliament in September’s national election.