A New Front Opens Up Against Merkel’s Re-Election Bid

  • Campaign shifts from ‘obsession’ with populism: Teneo’s Nickel
  • Chancellor’s main challenger sustains initial poll bounce

Just as Angela Merkel gears up to campaign against populist foes, Germany’s Social Democrats are opening a different front against her re-election bid.

Within a week of nominating Martin Schulz as its lead candidate in the Sept. 24 national vote, the political outsider has given the country’s second-biggest party a clear bump in the polls. That’s shifting the race’s momentum after a year dominated by the surge of the smaller, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany in the wake of Europe’s refugee crisis.

Angela Merkel

Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

For Merkel, the chancellor who has staked out the political center during more than 11 years in office, a sustained challenge by the SPD would add to uncertainty as she grapples with U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, a European Union that’s losing the U.K. and an anti-establishment surge across Europe. While her Christian Democrat-led bloc is ahead in national polls, support for the SPD jumped to the highest level in more than three years on Wednesday.

“It hits the CDU at the moment when everybody had assumed there would be no challenge from the center and the center-left,” Carsten Nickel, an analyst for Teneo Intelligence in Brussels, said by phone. “There’s been a total obsession with the far right.”

Martin Schulz

Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Schulz, 61, a former European Parliament president, emerged as Merkel’s main challenger last week, saying he’ll draw on his experience as a 10,000-meter runner in younger years for stamina. Polls suggest he’s more popular than departing party head Sigmar Gabriel, who stepped aside to clear the way for Schulz.

Five-Point Bounce

The Social Democrats rose 5 percentage points to 26 percent while Merkel’s bloc slid 2 points to 35 percent, according to the weekly Forsa poll published Wednesday. If replicated on Election Day, that would put the SPD at about the same level as the 25.7 percent it won in 2013. Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which has polled as high as 14 percent in Forsa’s surveys, dropped one point to 11 percent.

Although its voter base is smaller, the AfD with its lacerating language on migration and security has drained voters from the Christian Democratic Union in a string of German state elections last year, igniting unprecedented criticism of her open-borders policy within the CDU and its Bavarian sister party.

Merkel responded by offering a rare mea culpa on refugee policy after an election defeat in Berlin in September. At a party convention in December, she backed a call by socially conservative members for a ban on full-face veils.

Junior Partner

Indicating he’ll run on a platform of boosting incomes and cracking down on tax cheats, Schulz hasn’t ruled out allying with the opposition Green and Left parties to lead a government and break out of the SPD’s role as Merkel’s junior coalition partner.

“A portion of former SPD voters who had joined the ranks of non-voters or the undecided have now found their way back,” Manfred Guellner, managing director of Berlin-based Forsa, said in a statement.

Freed of the constraint of power, Schulz may also have a freer hand against the populists. On Sunday he lashed out at the AfD and France’s National Front under Marine Le Pen, accusing them of using hateful slogans and engaging in the same “aggressive nationalism” that destroyed Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

“This is no alternative for Germany -- it’s a disgrace for the federal republic,” Schulz told supporters.

Derailing Merkel

Merkel has already called the 2017 election her most difficult contest yet. A survey for broadcaster ARD in January gave her a 56 percent approval rating, behind Schulz at 57 percent. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere and former Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier also fared better.

Despite the gains, polls suggest an SPD-led coalition with two other parties would be out of reach if elections were held now. Schulz’s nomination is “likely to push the SPD’s campaign but unlikely to derail Merkel,” Deutsche Bank said in a research note on Monday.

— With assistance by Rainer Buergin, Arne Delfs, Birgit Jennen, and Chris Malpass

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