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German state election offers first test since Scholz took over

BERLIN (AP) – The western German state of Saarland elections yesterday offers the country’s first test at the ballot box since Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s national government took office in December.

Polls before the election for the state legislature point to a solid lead for Scholz’s centre-left Social Democrats in a region led since 1999 by the centre-right CDU party of former Chancellor Angela Merkel.

That doesn’t necessarily have much to do with what has been a turbulent first 100 days for Scholz’s three-party coalition, during which Russia’s war in Ukraine prompted the chancellor to upend German defence policy and Germany to welcome large numbers of refugees.

Germany also is grappling with a persistent wave of coronavirus infections, recently seeing over 200,000 cases per day.

All the same, it’s the first of three state elections within two months – all in regions currently led by CDU governors – that will help set the political tone for the coming year. The most important vote, on May 15, is in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia.

Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz leaves after a press conference. PHOTO: AFP

Saarland, located on the French border, is one of Germany’s smallest states with nearly a million residents. It has been run for the past decade by a coalition of the CDU and the Social Democrats.

This time, polls show Social Democrat Anke Rehlinger – the state’s deputy governor and economy minister since 2014 – as voters’ favoured candidate. Centre-right incumbent Tobias Hans is trailing.

The CDU’s new national leader, Friedrich Merz, is downplaying the significance of his party’s poll showing before the vote, citing local factors.

He pointed to a sharp decline in support for the hard-left Left Party, whose co-founder – Oskar Lafontaine, a one-time Social Democrat who was Saarland’s governor in the 1980s and 1990s – recently left the party.

It only narrowly avoided being ejected from the German Parliament in September’s national election.

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