Independent event or indicator for coming elections? An analysis of the state elections in Saarland

by Sebastian Rohde


On 27 March state elections were held in Saarland, a German state situated on the borders of France and Luxembourg. These were the first elections held after the general (federal) elections in Germany during which a government change occurred leading to the present German coalition government consisting of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Liberals (FDP).

It was - probably mistakenly - labelled as a first test vote for the government. Previous elections in Saarland have, however, demonstrated that local voters are fairly unimpressed by the general ‘German political mood’ or related to general federal Zeitgeist. They are, in fact, local elections with local characteristics being dominant.

Given the fairly small size and homogenous structure of the Saarland population, they generally follow their ‘own moods’. Contrary to current federal opinion polls that see the CDU (Christian Democrats) narrowly leading the SPD with Greens and Liberals fairly stable, the Saarland elections have been a clear victory of the local SPD versus the CDU. In the current government both parties are in coalition together, however with the CDU leading. The election result was the SPD winning 43.5% of the votes, with the CDU getting 28.5%. 

The Liberals and Greens both miss future membership of the Landtag (the state Parliament) as both missed the necessary threshold of 5%, both making 4.9% with the Greens only missing the threshold by 23 votes… It is often claimed that, in democracy, every vote counts. It did in this case.

The previous elections from five years ago had, for the two larger parties, almost the same result – but in opposite numbers. The CDU was at over 40%, and SPD at under 30%.

Why is that? Saarland parties, SPD and CDU, know less ideological difference than in the rest of Germany. Being attached to the region has a much greater significance than party ideology. The main interests are generally common between the population. An open border – by all means – with France and Luxembourg (especially France). The preservation of the local identify (which includes being close to France culturally and economically).  
People cross the geographical borders every day for work, shopping, restaurants. Road signs, language in shops etc. are bilingual on both sides of the border. Northern Lorraine and Saarland share the same dialect. Cities on both territories are linked through the same buses and trams. Items related to cross-border facility are a major aspect. 

The social structure of a mix between rural and urban areas with a long history of industry (ceramics, steel, coal) have made both larger parties being topically dominated by social well-being. Therefore, the local Christian Democrats are rather on the left side of the CDU, focusing strongly on workers’ interests. The political differences between local SPD and CDU are therefore fairly slim. Friendships between politicians from both parties are very common.

Hence party ideologies come second, if they come at all. So, it is usually a vote between the ‘best candidate’ to head the state government. In this respect, the candidate for ‘Ministerpräsident’ of the SPD, Anke Rehlinger did the best campaign. She was the minister for economic affairs until now and the ‘Grand Coalition’ government with is a very hands-on governmental style of work. She is tremendously present locally. The incumbent, Tobias Hans, was rather active at federal level trying to sell his ‘Saarland Model’ during the pandemic, which was constantly switching between liberalising measures (when the majority of the population was not interested in liberalising measures) and making things more stringent (when it did not seem necessary anymore). As people cross the border very regularly, it could be observed that things got more liberal in Saarland when measures were tough somewhere else and the other way around… Although the pandemic has gone fairly well, with high vaccination rates (fastest and highest vaccination campaign along with Bremen in all of Germany), the constant changes in local pandemic policy have not gone down well in the population and this have been rather attached to the ‘Prime Minister’.

The Saarland has been traditionally a difficult territory for smaller parties. The Liberals had their strong time until the 1980s and have struggled since. The Greens have always had difficulties as local politics lack the ideological element that had been a main characteristic of the earlier Green party. The elections should be understood as local elections with less impact on federal politics and vice versa.

The election also sees the end of the political career of Oskar Lafontaine. A former Ministerpräsident of the Saarland and head of the federal SPD and federal finance minister, he had deserted his SPD in the late 1990s to join and co-initiate ‘Die Linke’, the most leftist party of weight in Germany. He has left this party and has no longer been its candidate. Consequently, the party lost over 10% of its vote and has disappeared from the local Parliament.

The upcoming elections on 15 May in Northrine-Westphalia will be more significant as an indicator for federal politics. It is the largest state by population (18 million inhabitants) and has therefore greater political weight. RPP Berlin will follow the election closely and analyse its outcome. Stay tuned, and don’t hesitate to reach out for any questions!


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