Merkel’s Run for Fourth Term Just Got More Complicated

  • SPD’s Gabriel surrenders candidacy, shaking up party fortunes
  • Party still has a long climb to unseat Merkel as chancellor

Angela Merkel’s path to a fourth term as Germany’s chancellor just got more complicated.

The surprise decision by Social Democratic leader Sigmar Gabriel to surrender the SPD’s candidacy to a more popular figure, former European Parliament President Martin Schulz, reinvigorates the fortunes of a party accustomed to playing the perennial also-ran to Merkel’s Christian Democrats during her tenure.

Martin Schulz

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

“Schulz is someone who will compete with a more aggressive stance during the election campaign,” said Henrik Enderlein, professor of political economy at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. “This of course makes the situation for Merkel more difficult, but also more interesting.”

Merkel has already been staring down a wave of populist fury on her right flank, fueled by resistance to her open-border stance during the refugee crisis. Yet while the Alternative for Germany party has gained headlines and support, it is her traditional rivals -- and current coalition partners -- in the SPD, who pose the more serious challenge. With Schulz at the helm, they might increase support to allow options for governing alliances that keep Merkel from power.

Schulz said Tuesday that the SPD had the “courage” to unite a people “drifting apart” and that such divisions had been laid bare by the U.S. election. “This country needs new leadership in these difficult times,” he said, without identifying Merkel by name.

A survey published in Bild am Sonntag earlier this month showed that Merkel would win 46 percent of the vote compared with 27 percent for Gabriel if the German chancellor were directly elected rather than chosen by the majority party. In a Merkel-Schulz match up, her support would slip to 39 percent, with Schulz at 38 percent, according to the poll.

“Now she’s up against somebody who’s actually very popular and who can properly challenge her in debates and strikes an emotional tone,” said Carsten Nickel, a Brussels-based risk analyst at Teneo Intelligence.

Political Fray

Long a fixture of the Brussels political machine, Schulz has been a member of the European Parliament since 1994 and served as its president beginning in 2012 before departing last month to join the German political fray. To voters, the 61-year-old former bookseller and small town mayor can present himself as a politician with top-level experience who is nonetheless unsullied by the grand coalitions of the SPD and Merkel’s bloc that have twice governed since she came to power in 2005.

Gabriel, 57, will step down as party chairman after more than seven years, a tenure surpassed only by Willy Brandt in the post-World War II period. Gabriel, who is economy minister and vice chancellor, said he had become too associated with the Merkel-SPD grand coalition, according to party lawmaker Lothar Binding.

In the SPD shakeup, Schulz will take over the chairmanship of the party, while Gabriel aims to succeed Frank-Walter Steinmeier as foreign minister. Steinmeier is poised to be elevated to the country’s mostly ceremonial presidency next month. Brigitte Zypries, an SPD deputy economy minister who served as German justice minister from 2002 to 2009, will replace Gabriel at the economy ministry.

European Elections

A more closely fought race in Germany’s parliamentary election, scheduled for Sept. 24, would crown an electoral calendar in Europe that already features a vote in the Netherlands and a three-way contest for the presidency in France, with Italy and Austria also threatening to call elections.

Still, the SPD under Schulz has a long way to climb. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union-led bloc tops all national polls, with a Forsa poll Wednesday showing the party’s support at 37 percent, well ahead of the Social Democrats’ 21 percent. Other polls have the SPD hovering at around 20 percent. That makes another rerun of the two parties’ coalition the most likely outcome.

Schulz’s candidacy could translate into on-the-ground turnout for a party that has alienated its traditional base of workers and union members, particularly since the labor-market overhaul pushed through by former Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder over a decade ago.

“He brings the renewal SPD voters have been missing,” said Famke Krumbmueller, an analyst at Paris-based political risk consultancy OpenCitiz, adding that the SPD could climb toward 30 percent support. “Unlike Gabriel, he is not associated to the SPD-crushing grand coalitions.”

Shock Announcement

After Gabriel announced his decision at a meeting of Social Democratic lawmakers, deputies leaving the meeting expressed a mix of shock and relief. Most within the party had expected Gabriel would be the candidate.

“I’m very confident that we now have a very good chance to successfully run a campaign,” SPD caucus chairman Thomas Oppermann told reporters.

Any gain in the polls for the SPD would increase its coalition options, most notably for a three-way coalition with the environmental Greens party and the anti-capitalist Left Party, according to Manfred Guellner, the director of Berlin-based pollster Forsa. Still, he said, a path to victory would be a long one. Another hypothetical possibility mentioned in Berlin circles would be a so-called traffic-light coalition comprising the SPD (red), the liberal Free Democrats (yellow) and the Greens.

“The SPD would have to rise considerably to get a majority for a government and it remains to be seen whether Schulz can succeed at that,” Guellner said in an interview. “It would have to be quite a gain.”

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