Elections in the German state of Saarland on March 25 have dealt a heavy blow to the federal coalition government of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) retained its 12-year hold on power, holding steady at 35.2% of the small state’s voters. But Merkel's allies at a federal level - the neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) - were wiped out at the state polls.
The FDP’s share of the vote dropped from 9.2% in 2009 to a tiny 1.2%, well below the 5% required to enter parliament.
Nationally, the FDP is polling at barely 3% - down from a high of 14.6% at the last federal elections. It was booted out of five state parliaments last year, a trend that seems set to continue.
The centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) increased its vote by 6% to 30.6% - not enough to dislodge the CDU from government, but enough to force it into a power-sharing “grand coalition”.
The vote for the anti-capitalist party Die Linke (“The Left”) dropped from 21% to only 16.1%, giving it 17 seats in parliament.
This relatively poor result came despite Saarland being home to Die Linke’s popular and outspoken former leader Oskar Lafontaine, once dubbed “the shadow Chancellor” for his ability to influence German politics.
While an SPD-Die Linke coalition government is a mathematical possibility, the SPD steadfastly refuses to work with its left-wing rivals, especially in western Germany.
The bad blood between the two parties is due less to Die Linke’s partial origin in the former ruling party of East Germany - the Socialist Unity Party - than to the role of Lafontaine.
Lafontaine - a former leader of the SPD and Treasurer in the Schröder government - led a split from the party in 2005 that led to the creation of Die Linke and has remained stridently critical of the SPD’s anti-social attacks on welfare and workers’ rights.
The Green Party - which had been in Saarland’s government alongside the CDU and FDP - almost suffered the same fate as its small allies.
Support for the Greens dropped slightly from 5.9% to just 5% of the vote - enough to scrape into parliament with just two seats.
By far the biggest winner from the election was Germany’s newest political outfit, the Pirate Party, which began in the campaign to protect internet freedoms.
The Pirates were still riding high after their shock success in Berlin’s elections last year, where they won 8.9% of the vote and entered a German parliament for the first time.
In Saarland, the Pirates - led by 22-year-old Jasmin Maurer - stormed into the state legislature with 7.4%, enough for four seats.
Derided as a protest party and nicknamed “the Twitter politicians”, the Pirate Party appealed to many voters disillusioned with a political mainstream widely perceived to be corrupt.
The Pirate Party in Saarland also campaigned for open government, an issue which struck a nerve in one of Germany’s most indebted states.
The result has raised questions about the ongoing viability of the CDU-FDP coalition government at a federal level.
Federal elections are due next year, and the likely annihilation of Merkel's coalition allies means that if she is to survive politically, she may have to enter another grand coalition with the SPD on a national level.
The SPD looks unlikely to cooperate, having suffered a political backlash after the last such coalition, and has declared that it would prefer to form a “Red-Green” alliance with the Greens.
On the same day as the Saarland poll, the SPD won the mayoral elections in Frankfurt outright, taking 57 percent of the vote.
Merkel's government now faces the test of two key state elections in the next two months, in Schleswig-Holstein on May 6 and in North-Rhine Westphalia, on May 13.
The result in North-Rhine Westphalia will be a particularly important. Elections in Germany’s most populous state – with 18 million people – have had a destabilising effect on federal governments in recent years.
In both states, current polls suggest that the FDP will be annihilated at the ballot box.