The Social Democrats are 0 for 2 this election season. The center-left party is set to lose its governing majority in Germany’s northern-most state of Schleswig-Holstein, after failing to unseat Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, in the small state of Saarland in March.
Two defeats in just over a month – it is a troubling sign for Social Democratic chancellor candidate Martin Schulz, who swept on to Germany’s political scene in January in a rush of enthusiasm that bordered on euphoria. He is the main contender of Ms. Merkel when Germany holds federal elections on September 24.
Mr. Schulz personally campaigned in both Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein to no avail.
For Ms. Merkel, on the other hand, the two wins of her Christian Democratic party in state elections are a boost that could help secure a fourth term in power when the general vote is held this fall.
When Mr. Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament, launched his candidacy in January, the Social Democrats rose in election polls, sometimes surpassing Ms. Merkel's party in popularity. The Christian Democrats considered him a real threat to end Ms. Merkel's term as chancellor. She has been leading Europe's largest economy since November 2005.
The situation in North Rhine-Westphalia is not looking good for the governing Social Democrats either.
Mr. Schulz, a son of the German working class who was a mayor of a small west-German town in the 1990s, is untainted by German national politics. His common-man charm has captivated voters who are weary of Ms. Merkel’s long tenure as chancellor and are interested in a fresh face. But the so-called Schulz Effect has waned at exactly the point when the Social Democrats need to sustain their momentum.
Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, votes next weekend in a poll that is viewed as the real bellwether for federal elections in September. And the situation in the state's capital Düsseldorf is not looking good for the governing Social Democrats either.
Ms. Merkel’s CDU has gained in the polls and the two parties are now running neck and neck in the state, which is also Mr. Schulz's home state. The SPD’s coalition partners, the Greens, have also lost support in recent surveys. There is now a real possibility that the center-left coalition government led by Hannelore Kraft, one of the SPD’s most powerful figures, could lose its majority in Düsseldorf.
A loss in North Rhine-Westphalia, home to around 18 million citizens, would be a major, perhaps crushing, blow to the SPD’s morale, leaving the party just four months to recover for its showdown with Ms. Merkel in federal elections in September.
The returns give Ms. Merkel's party 32 percent of the vote in Schleswig-Holstein, a narrow strip of land that borders Denmark and has coasts on the Baltic and North Seas. It is home to around 2.8 million people of a total 82 million in Germany. Ms. Merkel's center-right party currently leads the Social Democrats by a surprisingly large margin of 5 points. Pre-election polls had the two parties running neck and neck in the state.
The Greens, the SPD's coalition partner in Schleswig-Holstein, garnered nearly 13 percent of the vote while the pro-business Free Democrats, the CDU's likely coalition partner, received more than 11 percent of the vote.
The right-wing Alternative for Germany, or AfD, will enter the regional parliament for the first time with nearly 6 percent of votes. The AfD is a populist party that has campaigned against Ms. Merkel's immigration and refugee policies.
Spencer Kimball is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. Gilbert Kreijger is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin, focusing on companies and markets. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]