Merkel celebrates German election win, challenger deflated

BERLIN: German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday celebrated an encouraging win for her conservatives in a state election, declaring that her party has "every chance" in upcoming votes. Her center-left challenger in Germany's national election later this year vowed not to be put off his stride by a deflating result.

Merkel's Christian Democrats easily beat challenger Martin Schulz's center-left Social Democrats in Saarland state on Sunday. A much tighter race had been expected after the Social Democrats were boosted in polls by nominating Schulz, a former European Parliament president but a newcomer to national politics, in January.

The popularity of Saarland's conservative governor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, apparently trumped what has become known as the "Schulz effect" in this year's first electoral test.

A satisfied Merkel, who has largely ignored Schulz so far, brushed off a question about the "Schulz effect."

Sunday's outcome showed "we shouldn't worry permanently about polls. We should work toward convincing people," she told reporters. "I'm simply happy about the result, and that's what counts. I don't permanently occupy myself with effects."

Two more state elections in May will be followed by a national parliamentary election on Sept. 24 in which Merkel is seeking a fourth term as chancellor.

"It will be a difficult election campaign and we have every chance," she added. "We have it in our hands."

Schulz was keen to highlight regional factors in explaining Sunday's disappointing vote in Saarland, a region of nearly 1 million people on the French border.

"We have picked up support in the last few weeks, in Saarland too, and we are looking ahead," he said, promising to draw "the necessary consequences" for the two next two state elections in May.

"We're in it for the long haul — that message goes to those who are celebrating today, understandably from their point of view, but should not celebrate too early," he said.

Saarland is run by a "grand coalition" of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, Germany's biggest parties and traditional rivals, the same combination that Merkel leads at the national level.

In Saarland, the Social Democrats failed to win enough support for a new coalition with the hard-left opposition Left Party.

A similar national alliance adding another left-leaning party might be Schulz's best hope for becoming chancellor, but the prospect may also have turned off Saarland voters.

The Social Democrats had ruled out working with the Left Party in previous national elections, although they do have regional alliances in the opposition party's eastern heartland. They have left the possibility open this time, but any combination would be complicated by foreign policy differences, including the Left Party's opposition to military missions abroad.

"The Left Party not participating (in government) has had significantly good results for Germany," Merkel said. "When, for example, I hear a representative of the Left Party saying we must leave NATO, then voters will have their thoughts about that."

Conservatives have accused Schulz, whose party has been part of the German government for all but four years since 1998, of deliberately talking down Germany's strong economic performance for electoral gain.

Merkel accused the Social Democrats of being "stuck in the past," agonizing over unpopular labor-market reforms they introduced over a decade ago.

"I don't think much of talking down what you have done yourself — I think you have to stand by it," Merkel said.