In a state election (Landtagswahl) in the Saarland that was widely considered another benchmark for the approval of the German federal government’s reform efforts, particularly of the labour market deregulation programme known as “Hartz IV” – these elections are, often to a significant extent, second order national contests – the Social Democrats have been dealt the predicted crushing defeat, gaining likely just under 30% of the vote, losing about 15% compared to their 1999 result, according to early, but usually very reliable exit poll data from Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, broadcast by ZDF television (German labelled graphics here).
The incumbent Christian Democrats under ministerpresident Peter M?ller received about 47,5%, a gain around 3% compared to 1999, in an election with an unusually low turnout of possibly under 60% of the around 820,000 eligible voters, which was likely a consequence of the predictability of the result. Following national trends the Greens, the Social Democrats federal coalition partner, as well as the Liberals gained votes and will be represented in the new state Parliament.
In what some might consider a silent preview of what will likely happen in a far more pronounced version in the upcoming regional elections in East Germany, protest votes seem to have increased significantly, with “all other parties” getting roughly 7%, far more than usual, and the right wing – nearly banned – National Democratic Party getting around 4%, just one percent short of the 5% threshold for Parliamentary representaion.
Results for right wing protest parties are expected to increase more in the East although they will share the protest vote with the Socialist PDS. Polls for East Germany are less predictable than for the West due to more rapidly changing demographics, less polling experience and generally lower voter-party alignment.
Though held in one of the tiniest of German states, the Saarland election usually carried some increased importance beyond the state’s 3 votes in the Bundesrat, the German Parliament’s upper chamber, or it’s industrial age economic characteristics: the state is home to one of Germany’s most controversial politicians, Oskar Lafontaine: He was the Saarland’s ministerpresident from 1985 to 1998. Even though he lost the 1990 federal elections to Helmut Kohl, he became chairman of the Social Democrats in 1995 in a coup-like removal of party-chairman and later defense minister Rudolf Scharping.
Despite claiming to speak “with the heart on the left”, in 1998 he lost the SPD’s nomination for chancellor to Gerhard Schroeder, enterting Schroeder’s first cabinet as finance “super-minister”. After attempting to implement some economically and politically controversial policies in the grace-period of the first Schroeder term, he lost the internal power struggle and resigned all government and party offices over night in March 1999.
Since then the narcissist politician, who apparently wasn’t able to deal with the fact that he lost against the then seemingly overly shallow Schroeder, has become a public figure willing to exploit every means to embarrass the government. Within the SPD, of which he is still a member, he is as controversial as the government’s policies. Recently, Lafontaine has chosen to speak at protest rallies in the East, rather than supporting the SPD’s candidate in the Saarland, Heiko Maas. Strangely though, somwhow, the amount and character of coverage concerning Mr. Lafontaine might actually be considered a proxy for the state of German social democracy.
Regarding my personal opinion of Mr. Lafontaine, I was once taught to say nothing if I cannot say anything nice about a person, so whereof I cannot speak, thereof I have to remain silent. Oh, and if you ask me, right now and opposed to most people and pundits, I still think there is still a good chance Schroeder will win the next federal elections in 2006.