German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratiic Union (CDU) party won a state election on Sunday in the small state of Saarland but her junior coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), were kicked out of the regional parliament after slumping to just 1.2 percent.
Saarland, tucked in the southwestern corner of Germany, has 1 million inhabitants and the vote was the first in a series of regional elections this year that could determine the fate of the ailing FDP and will set the stage for the next national election in 2013.
If the FDP remains in the doldrums, Merkel will have to find another coalition partner to win a third term. Commentators are already saying that next year's vote may produce a repeat of the so-called grand coalition of conservatives and center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) that governed Germany under Merkel from 2005 until 2009.
The SPD had hoped for a clean run of election victories this year, but Saarland has robbed it of momentum ahead of two more important state elections, in Schleswig-Holstein on May 6 and in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state with 18 million inhabitants, on May 13.
The SPD hopes to oust Merkel by winning enough votes to form a center-left coalition with the Greens in 2013.
The new, pro Internet freedom Pirate Party, which stunned the German political scene last September by seizing 8.9 percent of votes for Berlin's city assembly, repeated its success in Saarland, winning 7.4 percent to enter the state assembly for the first time.
Commentators say that by winning a provincial state like Saarland, the Pirates have shown they are a force to be reckoned with in coming elections. The Pirates beat the Greens, who took five percent, down slightly from the last state vote.
The CDU under Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer got 35.2 percent, slightly more than the last state election in 2009. They were ahead of the center-left SPD of Heiko Maas, who had been neck-and-neck with the CDU in polls ahead of the vote but managed just 30.6 percent -- comentators said Maas made a tactical error by saying before the election that he planned to form a grand coalition with the CDU and that he would shun the Left Party. That made many SPD voters stay at home, said analysts.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"These Pirates, who owe some of their image to their racy name, have now established themselves in provincial Saarland following their grandiose success in big city Berlin. Until recently, they didn't even have political platforms. Ahead of the general election, the other parties can now safely assume that the success of the Pirates is more than just hype. The Pirate Party evidently satisfies a trusting, impartial, heartfelt, grassroots desire for politics. This desire has become alien to an increasingly frumpy and jaded FDP, and the Greens have lost this desire in the daily grind of parliamentary politics. Everyday politics will catch up with the Pirates too at some stage, but it hasn't yet."
The business daily Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"The significance of this election for national politics shouldn't be overestimated. But it does offer some interesting insights. The Pirates are continuing to seize fresh territory. They have proven for the first time that they can capture more than a big metropolis, and can also appeal to voters in the gentrified provinces. The newcomers will remain a force to be reckoned with in the upcoming state elections. It is also remarkable how the FDP has been jettisoned out of parliament, like in the Berlin city election. It lost virtually all its voters and is little more than a little heap of misery -- that mirrors the condition of the national party and is in stark contrast with chairman Philipp Rösler's rhetoric in recent weeks about things getting better."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"The CDU has held its ground. Angela Merkel will be grateful for that when Europe starts arranging the expected new euro bailout packages. In Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia, the opinion polls don't point to an automatic continuation of conservative victories. But Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer's success in Saarland opens up the possibility of surprises that may not all go the SPD's way. The center-right coalition, and certainly Angela Merkel, will be relieved at that."
The left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:
"Heiko Maas has turned into a kind of tragic figure after his third failed attempt to become state governor. One has to be careful not to interpret too much nationwide political significance into this election. But one lesson can be drawn from it. For the SPD, announcing the intention to form a grand coalition with the CDU is self-destructive. If you announce such an alliance, you mustn't complain about voter fatigue. You don't bother going to a football stadium if you already know what the result will be."
"One should be careful with the success of the Pirates. Are they profiting from a fleeting discontent with party democracy? Or will they take over from the frazzled FDP, as the liberals of the post-industrial age? Only time will tell."
The mass-circulation Bild writes:
"It was less than three years ago that the FDP managed a dream result in Saarland, securing over nine percent of the vote. Almost 50,000 people voted FDP in Saarland. In March 2012 it was just 6,000 supporters who opted for the FDP. The party is sliding into insignificance! It has only one shot left to stop its downfall. It must get back into the North Rhine-Westphalia parliament at all costs. That means the time for compromises and for cozying up to other parties is over. The team around party leader Philipp Rösler must get tough and prove their liberal and pro-business profile. There are planty of issues: Cut taxes! Put a stop to more money for euro bailout funds! That takes courage! The party must start showing that courage. Otherwise it's time will be over."