Here’s Why Merkel Is Looking at a Fourth Term Despite Headwinds

  • Likely Social Democrat challenger lags chancellor’s popularity
  • Question is how strong fourth-term Merkel would be: Rahman

Rahman: Le Pen Would Bring 'Absolute End' of Euro Zone

If Angela Merkel is weakened heading into this year’s German election, her main challenger looks weaker still.

Sigmar Gabriel is the most likely candidate to run against Merkel for the chancellery, but he’s not even his Social Democratic Party’s most popular figure, let alone beloved in the country at large. 

Gabriel and Merkel

Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

By opting for their party head, the SPD would rule out Martin Schulz, the former European Parliament president who polls suggest could tighten the race with Merkel, while undermining the party membership’s hopes of unseating Merkel to form a left-leaning government. The upshot is a fourth Merkel chancellorship looks ever more secure.

“There’s no question Merkel is going to win,” Mujtaba Rahman, European analyst for Eurasia Group, said on Bloomberg Television. “The question is what’s the quality of her leadership on the other side.”

Faced with vehement criticism at home and abroad for her refugee stance and a terror attack in Berlin, Merkel still is the candidate to beat, even as the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany makes inroads. For all the caveats over polling errors, Gabriel’s likely candidacy means an unexpected result along the lines of the Brexit vote or Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president is all the less likely.

Leaders of the Social Democrats, Merkel’s junior coalition partner since 2013, are meeting on Tuesday to discuss campaign strategy and Gabriel, who is Merkel’s economy minister, has first claim to the challenger’s mantle, according to three party officials. Bild newspaper reported that he’s already decided to run. A party spokeswoman declined to comment.

“Merkel will face an opponent that is not playing in her league,” Jan Techau, the director of the Richard C. Holbrooke Forum at the Berlin-based American Academy, said by phone. “This is the SPD’s problem.”

As the Social Democrats weigh their options, Merkel is seeking to steer early campaign themes her way after 11 years in office that have made investors regard her as a beacon of stability. In a speech in Cologne on Monday, she called on Germans to stand up for an open, liberal society and said Europe’s strength depends in part on euro-area countries abiding by fiscal and debt rules -- days after Gabriel criticized her austerity policy.

One reason for Gabriel’s ascendancy is concern within the SPD about the potential for friction if the roles of party chairman and chancellor candidate were split, according to the officials. Gabriel was party chief in 2013 when former Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck challenged Merkel. She won the biggest landslide since 1990.

Popularity Gap

Merkel, 62 and Gabriel, 57, have sat at the same cabinet table for seven of the last 11 years. After the 2013 election, Gabriel opted for a tie-up with Merkel’s Christian Democratic-led bloc, even though an SPD government with the Greens and the anti-capitalist Left party was mathematically possible. Schulz represents a fresh face with little domestic baggage.

If the German chancellor were directly elected rather than chosen by the majority party, Merkel would win 46 percent support compared with Gabriel’s 27 percent, according to an Emnid survey for Sunday newspaper Bild am Sonntag. Merkel’s edge slips to 39 percent in a hypothetical matchup with Schulz, who would take 38 percent.

At age 57, Gabriel needs to consider his political future. “Gabriel is finished politically if he doesn’t run and I think he knows this,” said Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Polls show little room for maneuver for the SPD outside a repeat of the “grand coalition” of Germany’s two biggest parties. With 22 percent support to 38 percent for Merkel’s bloc, the Social Democrats wouldn’t have enough to form a majority with any allied factions if elections were held now.

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The SPD also faces a harder struggle because as many as six parties may split the Bundestag’s seats this fall, compared with four now. Many SPD rank-and-file members oppose a repeat of the junior role, which could make any coalition talks with Merkel after the election especially contentious.

An Insa poll in December showed only 40 percent of SPD supporters want a rerun of the arrangement. A three-way coalition with the Greens and Left, known as red-red-green by the parties’ colors, was favored by 51 percent.

“Red-red-green is a reflection of social reality, so such an arrangement on the federal level would really be worth an attempt,” Social Democratic lawmaker Axel Schaefer said in an interview.

Coalition Math

Gabriel raised a further option in interview with Der Spiegel magazine: a government of the SPD, Greens and the Free Democratic Party, a pro-business traditional ally of the Christian Democrats that bounced out of parliament in 2013.

All the calculus will be moot if Gabriel’s party remains in the doldrums. Polls suggest neither of the three-way options has a governing majority for now.

“For now it looks like it won’t nearly be enough for red-red-green,” said Joerg Forbrig, senior program director of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. in Berlin. “It’s looking like a continuation of the grand coalition, even if the CDU as well as the SPD know that a grand coalition is bad for them.”

— With assistance by Rainer Buergin

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