Voters in Saarland chose the CDU, but was this a vote for a popular state premier or against the left-wing alternative? That was the question as Germany digested the first of three key local elections.
The conservative CDU's relief was palpable at the party's surprise landslide victory in the first local test before September's national election. Final opinion polls before Sunday's vote in the small southwestern German state of Saarland had suggested a neck-and-neck race with the Social Democrats, but the actual result proved unexpectedly one-sided, as the CDU got more than 40 percent of the vote.
"It was an expression of voter satisfaction with the governing grand coalition in Saarland," Chancellor Angela Merkel said at CDU party headquarters in Berlin. "And I think it also helped that the CDU made a clear statement about its preferences for coalition partners."
That was a non-too-subtle jibe at speculations both within and outside the SPD that the Social Democrats might be able to achieve a majority in Saarland together with the Left Party, which evolved out of the socialist party of former Communist East Germany.
The leader of the CDU in Saarland, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, made that point explicit.
"The men and women of Saarland had the choice between a coalition of the center under my leadership or a coalition of the left," Kramp-Karrenbauer said. "It was clear what the people in Saarland didn't want, and that was a coalition between the Social Democrats and the Left Party."
Kramp-Karrenbauer also dismissed the idea that the election of Martin Schulz as SPD chancellor candidate and party chairman had revitalized the Social Democrats and given them a potentially decisive advantage in September's national election.
"The only Schulz effect I can see is that he got us up to 40 percent," Kramp-Karrenbauer added. "If that's the case, the CDU can live with it very well." She said the prospect of a SPD-Left coalition had mobilized conservative voters.
Merkel underscored that the CDU would not consider a coalition with either the Left Party or the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany, and she emphasized her own party's strengths.
"I've always said that everything's in the CDU's hands," Merkel said. "And Sunday proved that."
SPD: Only the first stage in a marathon
The Social Democrats were left to explain why they managed slightly less than 30 percent of the vote. Martin Schulz argued that the result was better than opinion surveys a few months ago and that a lot of time remained before the national election on September 24.
"The fact remains that we're improving - that's true of Saarland as well," Schulz said at his party headquarters in Berlin on Monday. "We'll be analyzing all the pros and contras of our campaign for (the upcoming elections in) Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia. Elections are endurance races and not sprints."
That may be the case, but for the moment at least, the SPD have lost momentum. The Social Democrats hope that Saarland was an exception and put their defeat down to the personal popularity of Kramp-Karrenbauer.
"The bonus incumbents get definitely played a role," the SPD's lead candidate in Saarland, Anke Rehlinger, said. "That gives us hope for the next two local elections where we'll have the incumbents."
Schulz conspicuously ducked questions about uneasiness over the SPD's relationship with the Left Party, which draws most of its support from eastern Germany and is often viewed with distrust in the West.
Schulz said that the Left Party had run particularly strongly in Saarland because one of their most visible representatives, former SPD chancellor candidate Oskar Lafontaine (in 1990), comes from there. But he did not address the real issue - whether association with the Left Party, whose help the SPD might need to retake power in Berlin, might also hurt the Social Democrats in western Germany.
Left Party: SPD needs to be more decisive
The Left Party got 12.9 percent of the vote in the western German state where they perform best, down over three percent from the last Saarland election. The party chairpersons didn't rule out a left-wing victory over the conservatives at the national level in September and said that Sunday's result was closer than it appeared.
"If the Greens had gotten just one percent more, we'd have very different headlines today," party co-chairperson Katja Kipping said in Berlin. "We could have had a left-wing majority (in Saarland)."
But there was no concealing the fact that the Left Party had come up short in an important test of its appeal in western Germany. Kipping sought to deflect blame to the Social Democrats for not coming out more clearly in support of a change in power in Saarland.
"The SPD's statements about a possible coalition with the Left Party were too imprecise to get people fired up, but enough to be used to create fear," Kipping said and insisted that issues of social equity would eventually favor parties on the left of the political spectrum.
The anti-immigrant, anti-EU Alternative for Germany polled just over six percent in Saarland, reflecting the once ascendant populists' recent slump all over the country. But the Greens, who would almost certainly have to be part of any governing left-wing coalition at the national level, failed to clear the five-percent hurdle needed for parliamentary representation in the southwest German state.
According to the latest national polls, neither right-wing nor left-wing coalitions command a majority. The next major political tests for the parties come in the first half of May when the states of Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia hold their elections.