This weekend, the Schulz effect will be put to the test.
Observers see the vote as an early indication of how well the Schulz-revived Social Democrats (SPD) could do against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
Who will take home the trifecta?
It’s the first of three regional elections this spring and many believe that the road to the chancellery goes through the states.
Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament, suggested as much in his first speech after being made the party’s candidate, telling his audience that his plan was to win elections “first in Saarland, then in Schleswig-Holstein, then in North Rhine-Westphalia, and eventually in the September national election.”
The two parties are now virtually tied, with the SPD at 33 percent and the CDU at 32 percent, according to a recent Insa poll.
Against this backdrop, many conservatives fear that a loss this weekend could have a devastating knock-on effect in the elections to follow.
Currently, CDU appoints state premiers in four states plus Bavaria, which is governed by its sister party, the Christian Social Union. The SPD has nine state premiers among its ranks.
First we take Saarland, then we take Berlin
Rural Saarland, a patchwork of thickly forested hills, industrial areas and mining towns, appears to be a well-suited laboratory to test the Schulz effect: Its current government in Saarbrücken mirrors the situation at the national level.
Voters in the state appear satisfied with Kramp-Karrenbauer’s government, with almost three-quarters saying they are happy with her governance, according to a recent poll.
But the Schulz effect may still upend the election.
The Social Democrats have risen from 25 percent to 33 percent, according to recent regional polls — putting them only 2 percentage points behind the CDU which is on 35 percent. A few months ago, the conservatives were at 40 percent.
The state premier has been trying to put distance between Saarland and what is happening on a national level.
Meanwhile, her challenger from the SPD, Saarland’s current economy minister, Anke Rehlinger, is surfing the Schulz wave.
Until recently, few people in Berlin knew the 40-year-old, who has described herself as a “country bumpkin” and claims to have no political ambitions beyond the state borders. But when the SPD elected Schulz as party chief with an unprecedented 100 percent of the vote, it was Rehlinger, a lawyer and former professional athlete, who announced the spectacular result. The following day, newspapers across Germany carried photographs showing her side-by-side with Schulz and his predecessor Sigmar Gabriel.
While the chancellor did travel twice to Saarland for campaign events, some within the party ranks criticize Merkel for being too slow to switch into campaign mode.
“Her strategy seems to be sacrificing three state elections … during which a quarter of Germany goes to the ballots,” said a high-ranking CDU official, speaking on condition of anonymity.