Sigmar Gabriel gets a lot of flak. Some say he isn’t reliable, others that he’s over-the-top and flippant when he talks.
But in purely political terms, Mr. Gabriel is the equal of any of Germany’s top politicians. Not least because he knows precisely when to drop his defensive stance and go on the attack, often to the surprise of his opponents.
What a coup to have caused such a storm with his early announcement that he wants to be the one to challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel for the top job in two years’ time. We already knew that, of course.
Mr. Gabriel senses a one-time opportunity to cash in politically on Ms. Merkel's unpopular handling of the refugee crisis.
Who else but the chairman of the Social Democrats and the vice chancellor in the ruling right-left coalition would be the natural challenger to Ms. Merkel, the Christian Democrats leader who has been in power since 2005?
But this isn’t normal SPD behavior.
During the previous two parliamentary elections, the SPD didn’t push its leader forward to challenge to Ms. Merkel, but instead viewed it as a chance to organize a changing of the guard.
In recent months, there has been much passionate and earnest debate within the party about whether Mr. Gabriel was the right candidate to try and end Ms. Merkel’s seemingly eternal reign. There was even talk of a primary election.
All this has hit Mr. Gabriel’s public image hard.
His decision to come out and make his claim on the candidacy is more defiance against the restless SPD grassroots and core voters.
And now, Mr. Gabriel senses what is perhaps a one-time opportunity to cash in politically on Ms. Merkel’s unpopular handling of the refugee crisis.
But, as a junior partner in Ms. Merkel’s ruling coalition, it isn’t as if the SPD can completely shrug off all responsibility for coping with the historic refugee crisis and mammoth task facing Germany.
Yet so far polls suggest it is Ms. Merkel alone who has seen the biggest drop in her public approval ratings. Meanwhile, her party the CDU has dropped from 42 percent to 35 percent in the polls in just a matter of weeks.
And if recently approved measures to speed up the asylum process don’t work, the party’s support could slide further. And although the majority of the party stands behind Ms. Merkel’s contested open-door policy, for the first time in her 10-year chancellorship a rebellion is beginning to emerge from its ranks.
And then Mr. Gabriel comes along and says: “Of course I want to be the German chancellor.” Bravo. The conditions for a bold self-assertion couldn’t be better.
He’s already acknowledged the danger the refugee crisis presents to Ms. Merkel.
“We would always grant Ms. Merkel asylum in our party, as long as she continues to practice social democratic policy,” he said – a clear expression of this newfound strength.
Meanwhile, Mr Gabriel’s recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the economic relationship between both countries also fits with the SPD leader’s new, bold self-perception.
But Mr. Gabriel’s power grab has only partially come off.
He may have silenced the internal party debate on whether he is the right candidate to take on Ms. Merkel, but he has yet to really convince the doubters in his own party.
Worse, he has alienated many colleagues with his zigzag course – and a number of unpopular decisions.
Mr. Gabriel surprised the left wing of his party by coming out in favor of the unpopular TTIP transatlantic free trade agreement. He also supported wider surveillance powers for security services and refused to contemplate tax hikes.
Yet Mr. Gabriel’s business-friendly course alone won’t win him his majority at the polls.
With these unpopular decisions, it isn’t surprising the SPD remains in the political doldrums, stuck on 25 percent in the polls.
For all the talk of rebellion, no one is suggesting Ms. Merkel isn’t the natural election winner for the CDU.
Mr. Gabriel on the other hand has his work cut out to convince his party he’s the only alternative.
Sven Afhüppe is co-editor in chief of Handelsblatt. To contact the author: email@example.com.