After nearly 12 years in office, Angela Merkel’s reelection battles, if one can call them that, tend to take on a familiar pattern.
Early in the election year, the opposition Social Democratic Party settles on a sacrificial lamb, and the chosen one begins an ultimately futile attempt to rattle the unshakable German chancellor.
The first SPD forays are usually batted away not by Ms. Merkel, but one of her lieutenants, often a lesser-known from the provinces, to spare the chancellor getting her hands dirty so early.
So it was telling this week when Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrat Party brought out its biggest gun – the gruff, battle-tested finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, to loft the first salvo toward Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament and the SPD’s latest candidate.
In Der Spiegel, Mr. Schäuble compared Mr. Schulz, who has attacked what he sees as widespread misery and poverty in Germany, as the German version of Donald Trump. The message of Mr. Schäuble’s broadside was clear: Ms. Merkel is the candidate of stability, not chaos.
“When Schulz calls out to supporters to “Make Europe Great Again,’’ that is almost Trump verbatim,” Mr. Schäuble told the magazine. Getting tarred as the European Trump is as low as it can get in Germany at the moment. A recent Spiegel poll found that only 15 percent of Germans think the U.S. president is competent, and 87 percent believe he is not good for Germany.
But the fact that Mr. Schäuble even bothered to take on Mr. Schulz – and that more than seven months before the September 24 election – shows just how worried the CDU is about losing Ms. Merkel, and with her, the party’s long hold on power in Berlin.
Their angst is not unfounded. Since the SPD ditched former vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, a forceful but unpopular candidate, on January 31, the SPD has shot up in the polls, and now has 31 percent, trailing the CDU with 34 percent, according to a February 15 survey by Forsa.
On January 26, with Gabriel still on the ticket, the SPD had just 23 percent, according to Allensbach.
Either party will need a political partner to rule. This week, the Greens stood at 7 percent, the Left Party at 8 percent, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party at 9 percent, and the business- friendly Free Democrats at 5 percent, the minimum level needed to enter parliament.
“When Schulz calls out to supporters to “Make Europe Great Again,’’ that is almost Trump verbatim.”
All of which means that for the first time since Ms. Merkel upset SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder in 2005, Social Democrats in Germany have a realistic shot at taking the Chancellery. With their previous candidates, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Peer Steinbruck, party faithful knew in advance that their best chance in the election was only to play second fiddle to Ms. Merkel in a “grand coalition,’’ a political fusion that has been mostly grand only for Ms. Merkel and her CDU.
Now, depending on how far Mr. Schulz can take the SPD, the party of Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and Mr. Schröder appears to have a serious chance of forming a ruling coalition – either as leader of an SPD-Green-FDP coalition, or, more precedent-setting, an SPD-Left-Green alliance.
The latter would be a watershed for the Left Party, created in 2007 out of the remnants of the former East German communist party and disaffected west German leftists. The party, which advocates the breakup of NATO, in 2014 elevated one of its members, Bodo Ramelow, to state premier in Thuringia, a part of former East Germany. He is the first Left Party executive to head a state.
A wild card role could still be played by the right-wing AfD, which only months ago seemed to be an unstoppable political force. But in recent weeks the party has lost steam amid an internal power struggle and the neo-Nazi-like utterings of a regional leader, Björn Höcke, who criticized Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial – a city block of stark black monoliths adjacent to the U.S. Embassy at the Brandenburg Gate – as a “national shame planted in the heart of the capital.’’
Ironically, the refugee issue – the issue that has made Ms. Merkel politically vulnerable for the first time in her career – seems to be losing its magic for single-issue parties like the AfD, as the country absorbs and accepts custody of the more than 1 million Syrians living in temporary shelters.
The big surprise is clearly the unexpected traction of Mr. Schulz, a talkative product of Germany’s northwest Rhineland who has captured the fancy of the political literati. Bearded, balding with glasses and rarely at a loss for words, Mr. Schulz exerts a soothing effect on many voters, who like his blue-collar roots and think he resembles their neighborhood fireman or favorite uncle.
Mr. Schulz has spent most of the first weeks of the campaign trying to appear harmless and not a scary leftist, a custodian of the status quo, one who will fight the good fight against social injustice but not really rock the boat, or take Germans in a new, uncharted direction.
At this early stage, his greatest appeal seems to be the fact that he is not Angela Merkel. Whether that’s enough to catapult him into the Chancellery will only become clear later this summer, when the rivals clash directly and eventually square off in two televised debates.
Until then, the struggle for political power in Berlin will be fought in part by political proxies with an unusual intensity at an accelerated tempo, reflecting the high stakes in a year when Germany, like much of the rest of Europe, seems to be on the brink of change.
Kevin O’Brien is the Editor in Chief of Handelsblatt Global. To reach him: firstname.lastname@example.org