Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) defied the pollsters as they won German regional elections by a resounding margin on Sunday.
Initial projections in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt had the party in first place with 36 per cent of the vote, more than 13 points ahead of its closest rivals, in a convincing start to its campaign ahead of September’s general election when Germany will choose a successor to Mrs Merkel.
The CDU saw off a strong challenge in the state from the far-Right Alternative for Germany party (AfD), which was leading in the polls justa few days ago, but limped in second with 22.5 per cent of the vote on the night.
And Mrs Merkel’s party reduced its two main rivals in September’s general elections to single figures. The centre-Left Social Democrats (SPD), who came fourth with 8.4 per cent, while the Greens, who were leading in the national polls only a few weeks ago, came joint fifth with just 6.5 per cent of the vote.
It was the first evidence the CDU can still dominate the German political scene without Mrs Merkel, who is stepping down in September after 15 years in power.
And it was a big win for Armin Laschet, the CDU candidate to succeed her as chancellor, who has endured a torrid few months in the role.
“This is a sensationally good result,” Paul Ziemiak, the CDU’s jubilant party chairman told the cameras, putting the victory down to a “centrist course”.
“This victory brings us a tailwind for the general election,” said Ralph Brinkhaus, the head of the party group in parliament. “The victory in Saxony-Anhalt is also a victory for Armin Laschet.”
“Now it’s time to take this momentum with us and united behind Armin Laschet with the best ideas for Germany,” said Jens Spahn, the health minister.
Mr Laschet was not the grassroots choice to lead the party into September’s election, and he has had to shoulder much of the blame for its poor performance in the polls in recent months.
But he will hope yesterday’s performance is enough to silence his critics. His pitch to the party was always his track record of defying the pollsters and delivering when it matters, and he will claim he has done it again.
It was a bad night for the pollsters. A CDU win in Saxony-Anhalt was always on the cards, with the party neck-and-neck with the AfD in the closing stretches of the campaign. But the scale of its victory was not.
The Christian Democrats increased their vote share by 6.5 points compared to the last election in Saxony-Anhalt, while their three closest rivals in the state all saw their share of the vote fall.
Martin Reichardt, the regional AfD leader, did his best to put a brave face on his party’s performance, claiming: “I think that we can be very satisfied with the results.”
But it was a bitter blow for the party, which had hoped to win a German election for the first time on a wave of anger at the coronavirus lockdown, and instead saw its share of the vote fall.
Mr Laschet may have been lucky in the timing of the vote, which came as the German lockdown ended, with infections falling to their lowest level since October.
But the biggest losers of the night were arguably the Greens, who only just scraped in ahead of the 5 per cent threshold to get into the regional parliament.
“We had hoped for more,” Annalena Baerbock, the Green candidate for chancellor, conceded. The polls had the Greens more than doubling their vote in Saxony-Anhalt at one point, and the party had hoped to prove it can compete everywhere in Germany, including the former communist east, where it has traditionally struggled. But on the night it fell far short.
The Greens will now fear they have lost the momentum from the brief honeymoon which saw them leading the national polls for a few weeks after Ms Baerbock’s nomination.
CDU supporters were quick to point to the parallels with 2017, when the Social Democrats led the polls for a time, only to lose regional elections and slump to their worst ever result in the general election that followed.