Why the Schleswig-Holstein state election matters | News | DW | 07.05.2017
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Why the Schleswig-Holstein state election matters

The poll in Schleswig-Holstein is one of two state elections ahead of federal elections in September. DW explains why it could have an impact way beyond Germany's northernmost state.

Here's everything you need to know about this Sunday's state election in Schleswig-Holstein - and why it matters.

Why does this state election have a national impact? 

Both Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and main rival and junior coalition partner at the federal level, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), are hoping that a win in Schleswig-Holstein will add momentum to their campaigns for the upcoming federal election, as well as the state parliament election in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Germany's most populous state, next weekend. Meanwhile, smaller parties, such as the Greens and the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD,) are desperate to prove that they are not stuck in a rut ahead of the NRW and federal election.

On top of that, state elections have a major impact at the federal level because of Germany's political structure.

The German lower house of parliament ("Bundesrat") is made up of representatives of the state governments. This chamber of parliament has the right to propose new federal laws and to block federal laws passed by the elected upper house of parliament, the "Bundestag." 

Who's currently running the state?

For the past five years, Schleswig-Holstein has been run by a coalition made up of the SPD, the Greens and the Südschleswigscher Wählerverband (SSW). Torsten Albig of the SPD, a 52-year-old lawyer and former press secretary, is the incumbent state premier. 

The center-right CDU, libertarian Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Pirate Party have been in opposition for the past five years.

Unlike all other parties, the SSW is a regional party only on the ballots in Schleswig-Holstein. The party represents the interests of the Danish minority living in Schleswig-Holstein and is exempt from the threshold that requires parties to gather at least five percent of the vote to gain a seat in the state parliament.

Who's eligible to vote – and who's on the ballot?

In Sunday's election, 2.3 million voters are eligible to vote. For the first time in the state's history, this includes 16 and 17-year-olds. For federal and most state elections, Germans have to be at least 18 years old to vote.

A total of 13 parties are on the ballot. Between five and seven of them are expected to make it into the state parliament, including all parties currently represented with the exception of the Pirates, who are polling well below the five percent threshold.

What is at stake for the parties?

The CDU is hoping to take over control of the state and secure its dominance at the national level.

In Schleswig-Holstein, for a long time the CDU lagged behind the SPD in opinion polls. While SPD premier Torsten Albig is well-known and popular in the state, the CDU's candidate, Daniel Günther, a 43-year-old former small-town mayor, who was almost unknown until recently. But following an aggressive campaign, the conservatives are now polling ahead, scoring 32 to 33 percent in the polls, three to four points ahead of the SPD.

Wahlkampf CDU Schleswig-Holstein Merkel und Günther (picture-alliance/dpa/D. Reinhardt)

Angela Merkel on the campaign trail with CDU's top candidate Daniel Günther.

For Chancellor Angela Merkel, this state election could be a turning point. She is hoping to repeat the success of the Saarland state election in March to prove that she and her party have survived an emerging threat from the far-right AfD amid the refugee crisis and can gain momentumafter losing some of her popularity in the past two years.

Athough Merkel and her CDU have led coalitions for 12 years, they have been less successful at a state level. They are currently involved in seven of Germany's 16 state governments. The Schleswig-Holstein and NRW elections could mark the first time that the CDU recaptures a state lost during Merkel's time as chancellor. 

The SPD is desperate to stay in power and prove the 'Schulz effect' is still going strong

Not just Chancellor Merkel, but also Martin Schulz, the SPD's chancellor candidate and her main rival in the September national election, went to Schleswig-Holstein in the hope of boosting their party's candidates.

The SPD is worried that what media have dubbed the "Schulz effect" – record poll numbers for the long-struggling party following the announcement that the former president of the European Parliament would serve as their top candidate – could be dubbed a fluke.  The party's poll numbers have recently dropped significantly and it performed below expectations in the Saarland state election in March.

Wahlkampf SPD Schleswig-Holstein Martin Schulz (picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld)

Martin Schulz (center) campaigned with state premier Torsten Albig (right) on the campaign trail on Wednesday and Thursday.

So keeping state premier Torsten Albig - who last made headlines when he refused to implement a policy of federal Interior Minister Thomas de Maziere to deport Afghan asylum seekers - in power is of crucial importance to the national campaign.

"If the SPD does not manage to defend Schleswig-Holstein, that will have consequences – first, in the upcoming state election in North Rhine-Westphalia, and then in national politics,"  Wilhelm Knelangen, a political scientist from the University of Kiel, in the state's capital, told DW. "It would enhance the downward trend the SPD currently seems to be on. On the other hand, if the SPD scores a clear victory, people will assume the SPD is in a good position. The same is true for the CDU and all other parties, of course."

The Greens want to prove that they are not in a rut 

While the Greens have plummeted in federal polls, they are expected to do quite well in Schleswig-Holstein. Over the past month, opinion polls have consistently shown them at 12 percent in the northern state (as opposed to six to eight percent across Germany).

Outperforming expectations – or even performing within expectations based on recent polls – could help the Greens shift the dialogue away from speculation over whether they are "victims of their own success" and lack relevant policy proposals. If they were to succeed in Schleswig-Holstein "people could interpret the election as a comeback. They will try to use that momentum in the next state election," Knelangen told DW.

Many experts attribute their popularity up north in part to incumbent environmental minister, Robert Habeck. 

Schleswig-Holstein Sylt Umweltminister Robert Habeck (picture-alliance/dpa/C. Rehder)

Environmental state minister Robert Habeck is among the most popular politicians in the state - but could soon be without a job in politics

The charismatic 47-year-old writer is viewed as one of the brightest newcomers within the party. When the Greens asked their members who should lead them in the federal election, Habeck lost to well-known party chair Cem Özdemir by a mere 75 votes out of some 36.000 ballots. But Habeck is not on the ballot in the state or federal elections. So failing to be appointed as a minister in Schleswig-Holstein again would leave him without an official political position – and his political future in limbo.

For the struggling AfD, not making it past five percent would be a major blow

The right-wing populist AfD founded in 2013 has been on a line of progress for the past three years in state elections: it won seats in all eleven states that held elections, surging on anti-refugee and anti-immigration sentiments. But in Schleswig-Holstein, the party is polling only narrowly above the five percent threshold.

AfD Wahlkampfveranstaltung Aukrug Schleswig-Holstein (picture-alliance/dpa/ . Scholz)

Infighting and the fact that top candidate Jörg Nobis (center) is relatively unknown have not helped the AfD's numbers up north

Failing to make it into the state parliament would be seen as a major defeat for the party, which has recently been plagued by infighting.

The FDP is keen on making a comeback

One of the most recognizable faces on the campaign trail in Schleswig-Holstein is the FDP's Wolfgang Kubicki.

Deutschland | Schleswig-Holstein | FDP-Kampagne zur Landtagswahl (picture-alliance/dpa/D. Reinhardt)

Wolfgang Kubicki will likely leave state politics for national politics if his party is elected into the Bundestag

The 65-year-old lawyer became the national co-chair of the libertarian, pro-business party in 2013, following a purge of all its leaders after the party lost its seats in the federal parliament in a historic defeat. Kubicki is not just his party's top candidate in Schleswig-Holstein - he will also be his party's top candidate in the upcoming federal elections.

The FDP is hoping that a strong showing for the party in Schleswig-Holstein can give them - and their top candidate - the momentum necessary to re-enter the federal parliament.  They are currently polling at 10 to 11 percent up north, and at six to seven percent across the country.

The Left Party is hoping to surprise everyone

The election race in Schleswig-Holstein is expected to be especially tight for the Left Party, currently polling near the threshold necessary to make it into parliament.

Deutschland | Schleswig-Holstein | Kampagne zur Landtagswahl der Linken (picture-alliance/dpa/A. Heimken)

The Left Party is hoping for a surprise success in Schleswig-Holstein (pictured: the party's top candidate, Marianne Kolter)

Entering the state parliament would be a major victory for a party that scored only 2.2 percent in the last state election and that tends to perform poorly in western rural areas like Schleswig-Holstein.

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