German election: Merkel's conservatives savour victory in key regional vote

Result boosts Armin Laschet's hopes ahead of September election

CDU leader Armin Laschet was bolstered by his party's victory in Saxony-Anhalt. Reuters 
CDU leader Armin Laschet was bolstered by his party's victory in Saxony-Anhalt. Reuters 

Germany’s conservatives savoured their victory in a key regional election on Sunday, bolstering their hopes of staying in power when Chancellor Angela Merkel steps down after 16 years in office.

Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) turned back a challenge from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the state of Saxony-Anhalt.

The election was seen as a test for CDU leader Armin Laschet, who hopes to succeed her as chancellor after September’s general election.

“This is essentially a sensationally good result,” CDU general secretary Paul Ziemiak said.

Ralph Brinkhaus, who heads the party’s parliamentary group, said Sunday’s result “gives us a tailwind” for the federal election.

“That is also a success for Armin Laschet,” he said.

Mr Laschet took over a party at a low ebb when he emerged as the winner of a tense internal stand-off with Markus Soeder, a Bavarian rival who some perceived as the more charismatic choice.

The CDU is the bulwark against extremism

Armin Laschet

While his would-be predecessor Mrs Merkel is Germany’s most popular politician, Mr Laschet polled poorly and leading CDU figures in Saxony-Anhalt opposed his nomination.

Public frustration over Germany’s prolonged lockdown, as well as a corruption scandal involving Covid mask contracts, contributed to stinging defeats for the CDU in two regional elections in March.

But the CDU’s ratings have picked up since then as Germany’s vaccination programme gathers pace and lockdown restrictions are eased.

The CDU took 37.1 per cent of the vote in Sunday’s election, up more than seven points since 2016. AfD was down on 20.8 per cent.

Polls had suggested a closer race between the two parties, with one survey last month even showing AfD in the lead.

"It’s as good as it gets for the CDU," said Prof John Ryan, a Network Research Fellow at CESifo in Munich.

“This is such a big margin of victory for the CDU that it really questions the methodology of some of the pollsters or whether the electorate misled them."

'Bulwark against extremism'

Saxony-Anhalt is part of the former East Germany, a stronghold of the far right where many voters say they still feel like second-class citizens more than 30 years after German reunification.

An AfD victory would have been its first in a state parliament and led to complex political manoeuvring to try to keep them out of power.

But the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam party failed to make gains after vocally opposing lockdown measures.

“The CDU is the bulwark against extremism,” Mr Laschet declared on Monday.

"The election shows that our clear line against AfD is not just right but people support it, and we will pursue this centrist course."

It means the CDU is sure to stay in power in the state and will have a choice of potential coalition partners.

Popular CDU state premier Reiner Haseloff has governed with the Greens and Social Democrats since 2016.

"What the [recent] three elections show is that regional leaders and personalities matter," Prof Ryan said.

It was a disappointing night for Green party candidate Annalena Baerbock. AFP
It was a disappointing night for Green party candidate Annalena Baerbock. AFP

Disappointment for Germany’s Greens

It was a disappointing night for the Greens, who are seen as the CDU’s main rivals for power in the general election.

The party won 5.9 per cent of the vote, up less than one percentage point – a far cry from the spectacular gains it hopes for in September.

“Since yesterday, it is definitely not the case that the Greens will carry on rising without any problems,” Mr Soeder said.

The Greens are typically weaker in the east of Germany, which is more reliant on the carbon-intensive industries that the party wants to phase out.

Green chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock suggested that the CDU’s success was down to voters seeking to prevent an AfD victory.

Many people had voted for the CDU because they “did not want right-wing extremists in the government,” she said.

But she acknowledged that the Greens’ showing was poorer than hoped. “Sure, we’d like to have done better,” she said.

The Left Party came third in Saxony-Anhalt but dropped to 11.0 per cent, while the Social Democrats fell to 8.4 per cent.

The pro-business Free Democrats scored 6.4 per cent and re-entered the regional parliament after failing to meet a 5 per cent threshold last time out.

"There’s a lot of competition on the left and the CDU was really in the centre," Prof Ryan said.

"I think it was a comfort blanket, it was CDU against AfD and the voters went with the CDU."

Updated: June 7, 2021 08:34 PM

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