Zten years of grand coalition in Saarbrücken should be enough – hoped the FDP there. On paper, the expectation was not unfounded. Wasn’t the aging coalition of the Union and the SPD recently voted out of office, and with the active help of the Saarlanders? The Saar CDU, accustomed to success, was humiliated, the SPD in the state almost as strong as it was in the best of Lafontaine times, and the FDP, with a double-digit result, gave the lie to all those who had described the small, social-Catholic area as inaccessible to liberal ideas. In fact, on September 24, the SPD and FDP (the quarreling Greens did not stand for election) were able to unite almost half of the almost 600,000 Saarland voters behind them according to the second vote result.
Now, six months later, it was not about power in Berlin, especially not in times of war. Politics in the Saarland province was voted on. Its capital is not only geographically further away from Berlin than any city state or capital of any other country. In the socio-structurally conservative country, the clocks tick differently politically than almost everywhere else in the republic.
There are enough reasons, especially in the Saar, to take out any resentment on what feels like the eternal governing parties: Dependence on the crisis-prone steel and automotive industries is still high, public budget debt is still a structural problem, and structural change is still going on A more than tough undertaking, education and science policy is still largely unambitious, transport policy is as unimaginative as before, corona management is as confusing as elsewhere.
Nevertheless, the SPD emerged victorious from the state elections with a brilliant result – and with Minister of Economics and Transport Anke Rehlinger as the top candidate. At best, there was a mood of change with regard to the composition of the cabinet. Prime Minister Tobias Hans, who succeeded Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in 2018, was demoted along with his CDU.
Not out of the blue
The defeat did not hit the Union out of the blue. The weak result in the federal election was a bleak omen, as were the opinion polls. Backlash non-existent. On the one hand, it had been clear for a long time that none of the three opposition parties, the Greens, Left and AfD, or even the extra-parliamentary FDP, was about to take on the government parties in terms of personnel or content, or even be available for alliances of a different color.
On the other hand, the Saarlanders had more confidence in the SPD than in the CDU in all fields that were decisive for the election. Whether economic policy, education policy or internal security – the Union has also gambled away its traditionally large credit in the Saar. There is no indication that the citizens could quickly rehabilitate it – a Merz in the Bund is no more than the swallow that has not yet made a summer. The fact that the new CDU chairman didn’t even show up in Saarland in the week before the election says a lot about the party’s ability to campaign there and there.
This is how Hans made the experience that happened to Hannelore Kraft in North Rhine-Westphalia in 2017: The office bonus, which had recently been the deciding factor in more and more state elections, can turn into its opposite if there is a lack of charisma and the political performance record of the person and party is negative.
Therefore, it is not certain that the two CDU prime ministers who want to be re-elected in May will face the same fate as the Saarlander. In Kiel, Daniel Günther has governed for five years with the FDP and the Greens. There is currently nothing to indicate that the weighting in Schleswig-Holstein could shift significantly towards a colorless SPD.
What will become of North Rhine-Westphalia?
In North Rhine-Westphalia, on the other hand, the Social Democrats will do everything possible to make the shame of 2017 forgotten and to put an end to Armin Laschet’s successor Hendrik Wüst (CDU) like Hans in Saarland. From Berlin, the SPD and the Greens should leave no stone unturned to present their comrades on the Rhine and Weser in the best possible light. After all, it is also important not to let the trees of the Free Democrats in Düsseldorf grow any further.
However, as energy and food prices continue to rise, it is likely to become increasingly difficult to deflect attention away from which party has always had the edge when it comes to courting Putin and increasing energy dependency on Russia. In any case, on Sunday the voters only held grudges towards the CDU.
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