March 27, 2017 / 10:34 AM / 5 months ago

German voters deal early blow to upstart Schulz

Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Martin Schulz reacts at the SPD headquarters in Berlin, Germany, March 27, 2017.Hannibal Hanschke

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - German voters are increasingly tired of Angela Merkel, who has been chancellor for 12 years. Yet a small state election on Sunday suggests she has good odds of winning a fourth term in the country’s federal election in September. Her government would be more stable and predictable than charismatic and radical alternatives on the left. For now that’s enough to persuade the electorate.

Saarland, the region bordering France and Luxembourg in southwest Germany, is the country's second-smallest state, with only 800,000 voters. Its elections were also a big test for Martin Schulz, the leader of the SPD, which is the coalition partner and biggest rival to Merkel’s CDU. If Germans could directly vote for the chancellor, 45 percent would chose Schulz while just 36 percent would pick Merkel, an Infratest Dimap poll showed last week. Yet in Saarland, he flunked: the CDU won out by a clear 10 percentage point margin. The far-right Alternative fuer Deutschland flamed out, with just 6.2 percent of the vote.

There is much for middle-class voters to like in Schulz. He is a fresh face, though as former president of the European Parliament has political experience. But the political alternative he is offering is uncertain. In Saarland as well as on the federal level, forming a government without Merkel’s conservatives would require the support of the far-left Die Linke. The hard left, whose biggest base of support is in eastern Germany, is sympathetic to Russia's President Vladimir Putin, wants Germany to exit the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and calls for a costly expansion of the welfare state which might come at the expense of economic growth.

If Saarland is a guide, federal elections look good for the current chancellor. Any government involving Die Linke would be less predictable, and the CDU is likely to emphasise that fact in its electoral campaign. Above all, a vote for Merkel is one for continuity not charisma. This early victory shows that at present, that is to her advantage.

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