Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Merkel’s Poll Lead Shrinks as SPD Challenger’s Popularity Surges

  • Social Democrats climb 8 points to 28%, CDU-CSU slips to 34%
  • SPD nominees always give party initial bump, analyst says

Germany’s Social Democrats narrowed the gap with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s bloc to the closest in more than four years, reinforcing a poll bounce after they chose outsider Martin Schulz to challenge Europe’s longest-serving leader.

Support for the SPD jumped 8 percentage points to 28 percent from a month earlier, the highest level since the last election in September 2013, according to the Infratest-Dimap for broadcaster ARD. Merkel’s Christian Democratic-led bloc, known informally as the Union, slid 3 points to 34 percent. Half of those surveyed would support Schulz if the chancellor were elected directly, compared with 34 percent for Merkel.

Martin Schulz, the Social Democrat Party (SDP) candidate for German Chancellor, is seen through the SPD logo while speaking during a news conference at the SPD headquarters in Berlin, Germany, on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017. Schulz, 61, who last month stepped down as president of the European Parliament to join the German political fray, was hoisted to the Social Democratic candidacy after party leader Sigmar Gabriel surprised rank-and-file members by stepping aside. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg
Martin Schulz.
Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

The poll underscores this year’s political risks for Merkel, 62, who has previously focused on the challenge by the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, or AfD. The unexpected candidacy by Schulz, new to German politics after leaving his post as president of the European Parliament, has opened another front while Merkel seeks a fourth term at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy in the Sept. 24 parliamentary election.

As the chancellor grapples with U.S. President Donald Trump’s unpredictability, Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II and a surge in support for anti-establishment forces ahead of elections in France and the Netherlands, the political headwinds at home add to a tumultuous political year in the region.

With Schulz’s arrival, the SPD is trailing Merkel’s bloc in the ARD poll by the least since the height of the euro-area debt crisis in mid-2012. Even so, the survey published Thursday suggests the Social Democrats wouldn’t be able lead a three-way coalition with the opposition Greens and anti-capitalist Left parties, which polled 8 percent each. The AfD, which has harried Merkel with its attacks on her open-border refugee policy, fell three points to 12 percent in the poll.

“All SPD chancellor candidates were off to a great start, so this is by no means unusual,” Karl-Rudolf Korte, a political science professor at Duisburg-Essen University, said Friday in a ZDF television interview. “It would be wrong for the Union to react frantically now.”

Schulz, 61, emerged as Merkel’s main challenger last week after party head Sigmar Gabriel stepped aside in the face of low popularity ratings against Merkel.

— With assistance by Rainer Buergin, and Zoe Schneeweiss

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