Germany’s “super-election-year” kicked off on Sunday, March 26, to be followed by the state elections in Schleswig-Holstein on May 7 and in North Rhine-Westphalia on May 14. The election year will reach its climax on September 24 — when Germany elects a new federal parliament. Are the outcomes of the state elections an indicator for the federal election results?

State elections in North Rhine-Westfalia have always had a significant impact on the federal level. Following the defeat of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 2005, former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) called for new elections on the federal level. Saarland, on the contrary, has always been considered a very special political backyard.

The question therefore is: Are yesterday’s roughly 560.000 votes a first indicator for the outcome of the federal election, where more than 82 million Germans are called to the ballots? The answer is simple: Perhaps more than one would have expected.

Most striking is that all opinion polls failed to predict the overwhelming victory of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which gained 40.7 percent of the votes. Each of them forecasted a head-to-head race between the Social Democrats and the Conservatives, arguing that the “hype” around Martin Schulz, SPD’s frontrunner for the federal election, would positively affect state elections and boost SPD votes.

Reality looked somewhat different. Contrary to the forecasts, the CDU significantly gained votes at the Saarland state election whereas the SPD lost votes compared to the 2012 elections. A change of government is therefore off the table; the CDU will continue to lead also the next coalition in Saarland.

How could the forecasters have been so far off? Opinion polls and media are now talking themselves out of it by stating that the so-called “Schulz-effect” has not become visible yet. But if it hasn’t become visible yet at the beginning of the “super-election-year” when can we expect this to happen?

When Schulz was nominated as frontrunner more than 10.000 Germans entered the SPD. Since then the “hype” around him has not worn off. At the SPD’s last convention on March 19, the party members elected Schulz as party leader with 100 percent of the votes. A historic vote and the day Schulz was given the somewhat ironic title “God-Chancellor”. It seems like the perfect framework for the “Schulz-effect” to manifest itself also in the wider public. So, why didn’t it?

Is the “Schulz-effect” reality or just a buzz pushed by media? Similarly to the US Presidential Election and the Brexit referendum, the public debate on Germany’s next Chancellor may not reflect reality. The following seven weeks will prove if the changes in the political landscape are real. At this point, the political debate has not been focusing on issues and political programs but on emotions and the frontrunners’ charisma and authenticity. Security issues, tax and social welfare expenditures have been touched upon, military procurement may be the next important topic. But it’s hard to predict if the political agenda becomes clearer during the next few weeks. One thing, however, is for sure: Opinion polls are not decisive, the popular vote is.

About the authors:
Anders Mertzlufft, Director
Christina Heß, Account Executive