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Germany

Opinion: Schulz has not beaten Merkel yet

Martin Schulz sent the SPD into total euphoria. But he couldn't turn water into wine. The Saarland state election has brought the Social Democrats back down to earth, says DW's Sabine Kinkartz.

Disenchantment can set in very quickly. The Social Democrats (SPD) had been on cloud nine for weeks. One week before the election in Saarland, the SPD's federal party congress in Berlin resembled a party. Euphoric delegates elected their new party leader Martin Schulz with 100 percent of the votes. The Social Democrats seemed unstoppable. 

Anticipating a series of successes in the German states of Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia, they talked of a so-called "Schulz Train" that would take the party directly to the chancellery in Berlin in the 2017 election year. In the driver's cab would be the shining light, the savior Martin Schulz. 

But the first of these three regional elections has stopped the Social Democrats in their tracks - at least for the moment. At first sight, the results must have come as a shock for the SPD. According to opinion polls prior to the regional election, the party was on equal terms with its coalition partner, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). But in the end, the CDU came out ahead of the SPD by more than 10 percent, winning even more votes than expected thanks to the popularity of their leading figure, conservative state premier Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Welcome back to reality, SPD!   

Disappointment in Willy Brandt House  

Sabine Kinkartz

DW's Sabine Kinkartz

That's the drawback to flying high. At the same time, however - viewed objectively - the SPD have done quite well. In January, they still lagged far behind in opinion polls with some 24 percent of the vote. The result of the Saarland election is therefore a relative success. But that's no consolation: In the Berlin SPD headquarters, the disappointment on election night was palpable. In the shadow of the great Willy Brandt statue, disbelief was reflected on the faces of those who had anticipated a victory, or at least a neck and neck race. 

The atmosphere in the Berlin CDU headquarters was somewhat different. In Konrad Adenauer House, alongside the delight that Kramp-Karrenbauer would remain Saarland premier, there was also a sense of relief. The Christian Democrats can catch their breath. Had the SPD succeeded in Saarland, this would not only have fueled their comrades' victory in the 2017 super election year, but would have also pushed the CDU further into crisis. 

The CDU is relieved 

Angela Merkel has made herself vulnerable with her initial refugee policy. And she won't get rid of the taint, no matter how hard she tries. The alleged triumphal march of Martin Schulz in recent weeks has caused even more upset in the CDU. Why did Merkel remain passive and not switch to campaign mode and attack? The unexpectedly clear victory in the Saarland doesn't only let Merkel come up for air, but she can also affirm it in her policy.  

The CDU is also motivated at all levels. Voters can be mobilized. This should revive the election campaign in Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia. In Kiel and Düsseldorf, however, the Social Democrats have Thorsten Albig and Hannelore Kraft in their state cabinet, who are at least as popular in their federal states as their CDU colleague Kramp-Karrenbauer in Saarland.

The party's over for the SPD

Officials in Germany generally have the great advantage that citizens only vote them out of office if there seems to be a much better alternative. A strong personality is helpful, but in the end it's also the policies that count. The whole package must be right.

But after the vote in the Saarland, the SPD should also catch their breath. That would surely help them come to their senses. Euphoria is a great thing. It inspires, and spurs on top performances. But it can also obscure the view. It's time for their comrades to take off their rose-tinted glasses. The party is over; now the work begins.

Red-red-green or grand coalition? 

At the federal level, a manifesto has to be forged that makes clear what the Social Democrats stand for in the future. What are their political goals? What alternatives do they offer? With whom could they implement their policies? With the Greens? With the Left Party? Or would everything boil down to a grand coalition again in the end? Voters want to know. If there is a political offer that arouses interest, if it promises to be exciting, then more citizens will head to the polls. Democracy can only benefit. 

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