The art of predicting elections is a difficult one. Many pollsters in the west have received abuse in the past few years for hugely incorrect predictions regarding major elections: most notably the UK 2015 general election, the Brexit referendum last summer and the recent US presidential vote. In the wake of the former, one reputable UK polling agent even set up an independent inquiry to see how the result could have been so skewed. ‘I don’t think the polling industry can afford to get [another] one wrong,’ said an ICM representative. Because of this, and because of the rapidly changing scenery of Europe’s political landscape, many people are growing wary of making wide-reaching political predictions.
With all this in mind, the analysis that is to follow should not assume to make grand prophecies for the future of Europe. Nevertheless, it is true that smaller elections are often a good indicator of more significant ones to come. The minor German state of Saarland, tucked away in the southwest corner of Germany and bordering Luxembourg and France, will hold Landtag (state government) elections on 26 March 2017. These elections, like most that have happened in Europe in the last couple of years, are difficult to call and will almost certainly lead to significant changes in the make-up of the regional government, as compared to the last election in 2012.
Saarland’s complex history need not be expounded here. Suffice to say, this area of land has been passed back and forth between France and Germany for centuries, invaded countless times, occupied by the Allies both between the wars and after World War II, and finally reunified with West Germany in 1957 in the most significant change to Europe’s borders between 1945 and 1989. The factors that affect the modern Saarland electorate are similar to those that affect the rest of Europe, and situated on the corner of three countries and right in the heart of Europe, it is not too much of a stretch to see its population as a microcosm of western Europe as whole. In addition to being culturally German, Saarland’s proximity to France – as well as a closely intertwined history – means that a great number of social factors are shared between the Saarlanders and the French: strong Catholic ties and a historical tendency to lean right. Furthermore, given the large proportion of Saarland’s population that lives in rural areas, their voting habits better reflect those of the European population than those of the inhabitants of a major city. Therefore, closely analysing the likely outcome of Saarland’s election seems as good a method as any to examine in detail what is going on in Europe just now.
Saarland’s current Landtag reflects the content of the Bundestag (federal government) in Berlin relatively well. Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel’s conservative party, the CDU, make up just shy of 35 per cent of the Landtag; the left-leaning SPD running a close second with 30 per cent. Like in the Bundestag, the two parties currently cooperate in a grand coalition, with the CDU taking more power but all major decisions being based on compromise. Otherwise, Die Linke (the Left) and the Green Party took respectively 16 per cent and 5 per cent, with Germany’s Pirate Party also polling a surprisingly 7 per cent. These proportions are likely to change a great deal on 26 March.
The social and political circumstances in Saarland are of course very different from 2012. The major change in German politics in the last five years is the formation and rapid rise of Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD), the anti-immigration far-right party, which has soared in popularity across Germany, especially since the introduction of Merkel’s open-door policy to refugees. The AfD has thrived off the uncertainty that exists regarding the influx of refugees, and even in westernmost Saarland – far away from the places where refugees are entering the country, and from the large cities where terrorist acts have happened – this tension is felt. As a mostly rural state, the Saarland government has been perhaps unique in Germany in housing significantly more refugees in smaller towns and villages than in the state capital (and only city) Saarbrücken. This means that there have been higher costs involved in providing transport, housing and services for asylum seekers than in other states. As well as this factor, public wariness of refugees has been typically mixed. While a large number of refugee centres and volunteering services have opened throughout the state, many people remain sceptical of what this growing population means. Saarland’s Interior Minister caused controversy by suggesting that intelligence tests would be a way to cut down on the amount of asylum seekers in Saarland; he also expressed fears regarding terrorism. ‘Let’s face it,’ he commented, reflecting the views of many Saarlanders, ‘We don’t know how many troublemakers there are in the country.’
The infamous open-door policy will also affect the results for the CDU. Saarland’s own ‘Mutti,’ CDU Minister-President Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has supported most of Merkel’s policies. Despite this she remains a typical rural, Catholic Saarlander and a little more conservative than the CDU party-line regarding some matters – voicing her concerns recently, for example, regarding the potential legalisation of same-sex adoption laws in Germany. Regardless, her party is likely to suffer a loss from the conservative vote in the wake of CDU’s policies at a federal level. As part of the grand coalition, the SPD are also likely to lose votes – and these votes, it seems, will go straight to support the AfD. One pollster puts their predicted share of the vote at around 9 per cent, but this could well be a low estimate.
A final factor in Saarland that will affect this election is the ever-growing lack of engagement in politics. Far away from the hustle and bustle of big cities, away from many of the positive effects of EU investment or diversity brought in by increased levels of migration in the last decade, coupled with a feeling of disillusionment in politics in general, it is easy to see why so many Saarlanders will not be going to vote at all on 26 March. Throughout history, apathy at election time typically leads to good results for extremist parties. In this case, that means the AfD.
Despite this, it was hard to sense this apathy in Saarland on 11 March. 4,000 people came out in Saarbrücken in a peaceful protest against the party conference of the NFD – Germany’s neo-Nazi party. In a city of barely 200,000 people, this number would indicate that the people of Saarland remain engaged in politics and are, in large numbers, opposed to parties that discriminate against minority groups. If they care enough to turn up to a protest, surely they care enough to put their cross in a box.
These will be some of the last state elections to happen before the federal elections in Germany in September this year, not to mention elections in several other European countries. Like the ICM pollster, I am wary of making any predictions – but I suggest on 27 March that anyone interested in the future of Europe should take a minute to look up the results in small, insignificant Saarland. What you see might well reflect what is yet to come.