A German regional vote Sunday will be the first litmus test in an election year where Chancellor Angela Merkel faces her toughest challenge yet from the resurgent Social Democrats.
The centre-left SPD — having long languished in the shadow of the “Queen of Europe” — has been gripped by almost giddy optimism since poll ratings have jumped under its new leader, Martin Schulz.
Sunday`s election will be held in one of Germany`s smallest states — Saarland on the French border, with just one million people — but is seen as a bellwether ahead of September`s national polls.
The SPD has gained around 10 points nationally since Schulz, the folksy and plain-spoken former European parliament president, took over in January with a social justice platform and a bold vow to end Merkel`s almost 12-year-long reign.
The “Schulz mania” since has attracted especially young voters to the traditional workers` party and put it neck-and-neck with Merkel`s conservative bloc, the current senior partner in a loveless right-left “grand coalition”.
While Merkel long seemed unbeatable at the ballot box, she has been weakened by a populist backlash against her decision to open German borders to refugees which has brought a million asylum seekers since 2015.
This has given rise to the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party which, despite a dip in popularity, is expected to enter the opposition benches of the 11th of Germany`s 16 state assemblies Sunday.
But as the refugee crisis has abated, the campaign race is increasingly being fought along traditional ideological lines.
While Merkel broadly argues that Germany, the EU`s export engine, is prosperous and needs to stay competitive to keep it that way, Schulz points to the army of “working poor” and promises to narrow a widening wealth gap.In what has been dubbed a “super election” year, Germany faces two more state polls — in Schleswig-Holstein on May 7, and North-Rhine Westphalia on May 14 — before the national general election is held on September 24.