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Germany

Merkel gets early election test with Saarland state poll

Germany's "super election year" of 2017 is underway: State parliamentary elections have begun in the German state of Saarland. Suddenly, everyone has their eye on Germany's smallest state.

"Great things always arise from small ones," is the slogan for Saarland's image campaign. The small state on the border with France and Luxembourg tends to be the butt of jokes in Germany. Comedian Jan Böhmermann, known for the diplomatic scandal his satirical poem sparked in Turkey, calls the state "superfluous." Jokes about the state of Saarland have become a staple in Böhmermann's show "Neo Magazin Royale."

In the German media, Saarland is often mentioned as a unit of measure. For example, when there is a forest fire or earthquake somewhere, German journalists speak of an area "twice as big as" or "half the size of" Saarland. Even though most Germans probably cannot imagine the exact size, people are still meant to know that rather small areas are being described.

The state elections on Sunday put Saarland back in the spotlight. After all, federal elections are only half a year away and state elections are seen partly as a barometer of the national electorate's mood. Political scientists, however, do not agree on the extent to which this is still valid in the case of Saarland in this "super election year." What is more, the state has only 800,000 eligible voters compared to the 62 million nationwide.

Late addition to the country

Saarland's history makes it a special state in Germany.  After World War II, Saarland became the Saar Protectorate, which was administered by the French, and only rejoined Germany in 1957.

Deutschland Wahl Ministerpräsident Saarland Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (picture-alliance/dpa/Becker&Bredel)

Kramp-Karrenbauer took a hard line against Turkish politicians in Saarland

This fact, and, of course, the border location, mean that Saarland has traditionally had close ties with France. France is the state's most important foreign trade partner. Saarland is also the only state in which French is taught as the first foreign language at school, while elsewhere in Germany, English is the norm. In 2014, the government of Saarland announced its "French strategy," which outlines the intention of making the region bilingual in French and German by 2043.

Internationally, Saarland recently made headlines with regard to Turkey: Conservative premier Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced in mid-March that she wanted to prevent the election campaigns of Turkish politicians in Saarland - even though no Turkish politician had announced travel plans to the state. The conservative Christian Democratic Union's (CDU) top candidate most likely wanted to take a clear stance in the campaign for the upcoming elections: According to the "ARD-Deutschlandtrend" survey, a monthly political opinion poll, the majority of German respondents said that they did not want Turkish politicians conducting election campaigns in Germany, with 77 percent even saying that the federal government should forbid such campaign appearances.

Is the 'Schulz effect' working"?

At 62 percent, Saarland has the highest percentage of Catholics in any state population in Germany. That is why, traditionally, conservative and Catholic politicians often rule the state. The CDU has already governed there for a whole 18 years. But that could soon change. The center-left Social Democrats (SPD) hope that the "Schulz effect," meaning the hype surrounding Martin Schulz, the new party leader and its candidate for chancellor, will weave its magic in Saarland as well. And indeed, an ARD survey now shows the CDU just one percentage point ahead of the SPD, even though in January the CDU was clearly more popular than the Social Democrats. A so-called "grand coalition" of the two parties is thus still possible, but according to several opinion polls, another option could be an SPD coalition with the Left party, known as a "red-red coalition" under Germany's political color-coding system.

Deutschland Martin Schulz zum neuen SPD-Chef gewählt (Reuters/A. Schmidt)

Will Schulz help put the SPD in power in Saarland?

That is another unusual feature of Saarland: a strong left-wing party. Traditionally, the Left party is not that strong in western German states. However, it is benefiting from the nationwide popularity of a prominent politician from Saarland, Oskar Lafontaine. The now-Left party politician once served as premier of Saarland for the SPD. Now, for the third time, he is running as the head of the Left party in the state elections.

Next Sunday, we will find out who will soon have the say in the smallest parliament and smallest government of all German states. And then, the election focus will move on to other states in Germany. After Saarland, the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein and the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia will hold elections in May before the federal elections are held in September.

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