Angela Merkel is half way through her third term and 10th year as German chancellor. And this week it became crystal clear who her main challenger in the 2017 election will be: her own vice chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel.
The leader of the Social Democrats, the junior partner in the ruling right-left coalition, announced his interest two years ahead of the election. His disclosure, made in an interview with Stern magazine, doused some speculation that another member of the center-left SPD would step forward to take on Ms. Merkel.
“Of course I want to be the chancellor candidate, if the SPD wants to put me forward. There is no doubt about it,” he said.
Mr. Gabriel, who is also economics minister, hopes his centrist policies and support for German industry will boost his chances.
But his candidacy, at this point, appears to be a long shot.
The latest polls show the SPD with support from only 24 percent of the German electorate. That is far behind the 36 percent Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats are polling, even though that level is the conservatives’ lowest rating in three years.
The fact that the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, have seen their support slump in a few months from over 40 percent amid the refugee crisis has not benefitted the SPD. Instead, other parties, such as the Greens, the pro-business Free Democrats and anti-immigration Alternative for Germany have profited from the CDU’s woes.
With Ms. Merkel’s under political pressure for the first time since becoming chancellor in 2005, it could be a good time for the opposition. This week, the head of her Bavarian allies, Horst Seehofer, issued an ultimatum to the chancellor to radically change her current refugee policies.
And there are reports of deep unease within elements of Ms. Merkel’s own party about her open-armed welcome to asylum seekers.