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German state votes in election-year test for Merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel / AFP PHOTO / TOBIAS SCHWARZ

German voters go to the polls Sunday in tiny Saarland state where a resurgent centre-left hopes to strike a first blow in their battle to topple Chancellor Angela Merkel this year.

Although the state bordering France is home to just one million people, its vote half a year before national elections is seen as a test of the Social Democrats’ rising fortunes under new leader Martin Schulz.

The SPD, having long played second fiddle to Merkel in a national right-left grand coalition, has been re-energised since the folksy and plain-spoken Schulz became its leader in January.

The former president of the European Parliament has lifted party support by 10 percent with promises to help the socially disadvantaged and end Merkel’s almost 12-year reign in September elections.

The “Schulz mania” has seen younger voters flock to the more than 150-year-old workers’ party, which is now polling neck-and-neck with Merkel’s conservative bloc — both nationally and in Saarland.

The SPD is currently the CDU’s unhappy junior partner in Saarland and in the national government — and in both cases hopes to grab power by teaming up with other leftist parties.

Even if the CDU comes out ahead in Saarland, the SPD could form a coalition with the far-left Linke and possibly the ecologist Greens parties — a so-called “red-red-green” alliance.

The same trio is now running the city-state of Berlin, although policy hurdles remain at the national level, given that the Linke is sceptical of the EU and rejects German membership in NATO.

In Saarland, the latest poll for broadcaster ZDF gave the CDU a clear lead at 37 percent over the SPD’s 32 percent, with the SPD’s potential ally the Linke scoring 12.5 percent.

The incumbent is popular CDU premier Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, 54, often dubbed simply “AKK”, who is considered pragmatic and unpretentious, dressing up as a cleaning lady at carnival festivities.

Her SPD challenger is depuuty premier Anke Rehlinger, 40, who happens to hold the state record in shot put (16.03 metres).

First projections by public broadcasters are expected shortly after polls close at 6:00 pm local time — although talks to forge a governing coalition could then take days or weeks.

– Change ‘within reach’ –

While Merkel long seemed invincible at the ballot box, she has been weakened by a backlash against her decision to open German borders to refugees which has brought in a million asylum seekers since 2015.

This has boosted the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party which, despite a recent dip in popularity, is still expected to enter the opposition benches of the 11th of Germany’s 16 state assemblies on Sunday.

As the refugee crisis has abated, the campaign race is increasingly being fought along traditional ideological lines.

While Merkel broadly argues that Germany, the EU’s export engine, is prosperous and needs to stay competitive to keep it that way, Schulz points to the army of “working poor” and promises to narrow the wealth gap.

Merkel, 62, has warned local voters that “red-red or red-red-green experiments should be avoided” and urged them to stick with the CDU’s “path of success”.

Saarland, though tiny, in some ways reflects the bigger economic challenges. The former coal region, where the last mine closed in 2012, has sought to establish itself as a research and IT hub.

The predominantly Catholic region, occupied by France after World War II, has since the mid-1950s been ruled by the CDU, alone or in coalition, except for the 1985-98 reign of former SPD premier Oskar Lafontaine.

Lafontaine, who later defected to the Linke party, has campaigned with posters that promise “We’ve paid enough — now it’s the turn of the rich”.

A change of government was now “within reach” in Saarland, the 73-year-old said this week.

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Angela Merkel


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