On March 27th, voters in the German state of Saarland cast their ballots in the first election since the federal parliamentary elections last September. The results from the industry-dense state on the German-French-Luxembourg border were an overwhelming success for the SPD; 43.5% of the vote translating into a 29-seat majority in the State Parliament, the return of the social democrats to the head of state government as well as the ability to govern independently due to their absolute majority. The incoming Minister President, Anke Rehlinger, will bring the number of currently-serving female minister presidents across Germany’s sixteen states to 4 – all from the SPD.
The impressive results are not just a positive showing for the SPD under Chancellor Olaf Scholz, but also reinforce the importance of leadership and character at the state-level. The incumbent Minister President, CDU candidate Tobias Hans, led his party to historic losses in Saarland – delivering the worst results in over sixty years – proving the exception to the rule that there is an electoral advantage for an incumbent office-holder.
Anke Rehlinger has already had a long career in state-level politics. A member in the State Parliament since 2004, she has served in different roles in the State cabinet since 2012. In her youth, she was a state-record-setting discus and shot-put athlete. Rehlinger is deeply networked in Saarland; she’s hyper-local and the voters clearly find her to be a positive, knowable, trustworthy, and credible leader.
With the SPD’s impressive results and despite the poor returns for the CDU, Germany’s two big-tent “People’s Parties” won 72% of the vote. Other parties – the FDP and the Greens, which govern with the SPD in the federal government; as well as the Left – failed to win at least 5% of the vote, the legal minimum in order to enter the parliament. The far-right AfD declined in performance compared to 2017, but squeaked into the parliament with 5.7% of the vote, and 3 of the 51 available seats.
Although Saarland is a rather extraordinary example – the People’s Parties have always had an outstanding influence in the state even while they struggled elsewhere – there are also larger structural trends in favor of the SPD; the party seems to have emerged from its existential crisis and is largely unified; it is displaying new confidence under Chancellor Olaf Scholz and successful candidates in other states. Whether similar electoral trends will be seen in the next state elections in Germany – in Schleswig-Holstein on May 8th and North Rhine Westphalia on May 15th remains to be seen, but there is cause for cautious optimism.
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