There may be no alternative to Merkel, after all

When it came to winning actual elections, though, the CDU has proved a tougher rival than Social Democrats expected. First, it won convincingly in Saarland in March after scaring voters with the possibility of an SPD alliance with more radical leftist forces. And on Sunday, it triumphed in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, where the SPD had ruled in coalition with the Greens and a party representing the state’s Danish minority. Merkel’s party improved on its 2012 result, while the Social Democrats performed worse — and lost the state after 12 years as the ruling party. The CDU will govern the state now, likely with the liberal Free Democratic Party and the Greens, kicking the SPD out.

It’s a tribute to Merkel’s political skill that it’s not quite clear to outside observers how she gets these victories. She appears to practice some kind of highly effective political zen.

Both in Saarland and in Schleswig-Holstein, polls showed the main parties running neck and neck just weeks before voting day. Then the SPD made a tiny misstep that didn’t appear life-threatening. In Saarland, its leader showed perhaps too much enthusiasm for kicking the CDU out of government, even if it meant a riskier coalition. In Schleswig-Holstein, the state’s Social Democrat prime minister Torsten Albig gave an interview to celebrity magazine Bunte, going into some details about the breakup of his marriage. It was widely seen as the wrong venue for a politician to vent on personal matters, and Albig’s description of his ex-wife as someone too caught up in mothering and housekeeping rubbed women voters the wrong way. It also irritated Albig’s coalition partners. The SPD can blame the state prime minister for being too complacent and tone-deaf to stave off defeat. But then, the CDU could have stumbled too but didn’t, playing calmly through the endgame for the second time in a row.