German SPD wins Saar vote to give Scholz a boost

The centre-left party will have enough seats for an outright majority in the tiny western state, the first regional vote since the SPD unexpectedly beat the Tories in a national election last year after 16 years of rule by Angela Merkel.

“Saarland was a first test of the mood after the federal elections,” said SPD leader Lars Klingbeil, calling the victory a “sensational victory”.

According to preliminary results, the SPD won 43.5% of the vote, up 14 percentage points from the last vote, while the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) fell to 28.5%.

The two parties have ruled Saarland in a conservative-led ‘grand coalition‘ since 2012, but popular regional SPD leader Anke Rehlinger, a former regional economy minister, has said she is ready to govern without a partner.

Regional elections in Germany are important indicators of the public mood. Recent opinion polls have shown that the ruling coalition of Scholz’s SPD, Green Greens and Liberal Democrats (FDP) is consolidating its popularity.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted the coalition to promise more military spending and move Germany away from its energy dependence on Russia, Greens’ ratings have risen for Scholz and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.

However, polls showed voters in Saarland were more interested in topics such as unemployment and education, as well as climate and energy policies.

Regional elections help determine the distribution of votes in the upper house of the Bundesrat parliament, although Saarland does not have much weight in the second house given that it has only around one million inhabitants.

While Scholz’s coalition has a solid majority in the lower house of the Bundestag, the conservative-led or co-led states have 51 out of 69 votes in the Bundesrat.

Three of the four states holding elections this year are run by the CDU. If the CDU were to lose those votes, it could make it easier for the government to pass laws.

A bigger signpost than Saarland’s vote will be the May 15 elections in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, said Eurasia Group’s Naz Masraff.

“A possible change of government (there) from the CDU to the SPD would be essential for Scholz to further consolidate power in his party and leave more political space for the government,” Masraff said.

Currently, the CDU prime ministers of North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein, who are due to hold national elections on May 8, lead their SPD rivals in the polls. Lower Saxony, where the SPD leads a grand coalition, also votes on October 9.

(Reporting by Andreas Rinke, Sarah Marsh and Emma Thomasson; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Frances Kerry, Pravin Char and Daniel Wallis)

By Andreas Rinke and Sarah Marsh

James R. Rhodes