Merkel in northern Germany state election test


Kiel (Germany) (AFP) – Voters in northern Germany headed to the polls Sunday in a regional election being watched for signs of  the centre-left’s chances of unseating conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel in September.

The vote in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany’s northernmost state, comes as a recent surge in nationwide polls for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) since new leader Martin Schulz was chosen in February has faded.

Schulz’s supporters are increasingly fearful that the momentum he had been surfing will not carry him into the chancellery, which Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have held since 2005.

Like at the national level, neither the SPD nor the CDU are expected to achieve an absolute majority in the regional parliament in the state capital, the Baltic Sea port city of Kiel, following Sunday’s vote.

But if the CDU emerges leading a governing coalition, it will be a further blow to the Social Democrats’ confidence — one week ahead of yet a far bigger regional vote in their stronghold of North Rhine-Westphalia, also Germany’s most populous state.

“For Angela Merkel, an election victory for her party would be a turning point,” commented conservative daily Die Welt. 

“For the first time since the beginning of her chancellorship in 2005, the CDU could reconquer one of the states they’ve lost.”

  • AfD key unknown –

The CDU lost a string of state elections over the past two years as voters punished Merkel for her liberal refugee policy that allowed more than one million asylum seekers into Germany since 2015.

But with the pace of new arrivals sharply slowing, surveys show the conservatives gaining ground.

A recent poll of around 1,800 people for public broadcaster ZDF showed the CDU with 32 percent support in Schleswig-Holstein and the SPD on 29 percent.

One key unknown is whether the Germany-wide collapse in support for anti-euro, anti-Islam party Alternative for Germany (AfD) after a vicious internal falling-out between moderates and hardliners will be reflected in Sunday’s election results.

Polls show the AfD party is uncertain of passing the five-percent threshold to enter state parliaments in both Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia — whereas at the end of last year it was the third most popular party nationwide.

Turnout Sunday appeared to be strong, with 42.5 percent of the 2.3 million eligible voters having already cast their ballot by 1200 GMT, compared with 37.7 percent at the same time during the last polls in 2012.

  • Wind and fury –

Beyond its significance as the last-but-one regional election before the September general elections, there are plenty of local peculiarities in Sunday’s vote.

Popular SPD state premier Torsten Albig, 53, has led a coalition of SPD, Greens, and local Danish minority party SSW since 2012.

He squares off against CDU challenger Daniel Guenther, who is 10 years younger and an energetic opposition leader at the regional parliament.

The centre-right group there has sparked debate across Germany in recent years with populist proposals like requiring pork to be served in school canteens — a nod to voters fearful of Islam’s influence on public life.

This year’s campaign has seen battles over education, policing and roads, a top concern in a state with a population of 2.8 million thinly spread across almost 16,000 square kilometres.

Another battleground is wind farm construction near residential areas — no small matter in a windy coastal region whose turbines are a key element in Germany’s “energy transition” away from nuclear and fossil fuels.

Both major parties have sent their heaviest hitters to Schleswig-Holstein in recent days, with Schulz making appearances in Kiel and Luebeck Thursday.

But his interventions have done little to counteract criticism that the former president of the European Parliament has so far failed to offer concrete attacks against Merkel and the right.

Schulz has an uphill battle ahead to defeat Merkel, a leader so popular that one CDU election poster in 2013 simply showed her fingers clasped in their habitual diamond shape alongside the slogan “Germany’s Future In Good Hands”.

Polling stations close at 6:00 pm (1600 GMT), with results expected shortly after.

    <figure><figcaption>(From L) Schleswig-Holstein State Premier Torsten Albig, new Germany's social democratic SPD party chief Martin Schulz and other party officials celebrate Schulz' election during the SPD Congress, in Berlin, on March 19, 2017
        <span>Copyright AFP/File Tobias Schwarz</span>
      </figcaption><img src="" width="768" height="479"><figcaption>German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks at a congress of the parliamentary groups of the christian democratic parties CDU/CSU, in Berlin, on March 29, 2017
        <span>Copyright DPA/AFP/File Monika Skolimowska</span>
      </figcaption><img src="" width="768" height="482"><figcaption>One of the battlegrounds ahead of a regional election in northern Germany's Schleswig-Holstein state is wind farm construction near residential areas
        <span>Copyright DPA/AFP/File Jens Buttner</span>