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.
“He can do it. Gabriel is one of those politicians who wants to make a difference and push things forward.”
Mr. Gabriel has never hidden the fact that he has long held ambitions to become chancellor. And there are few other obvious candidates in his party.
The popular foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who unsuccessfully challenged Ms. Merkel in 2009, is instead being touted as a possible future president of Germany, a largely ceremonial post. Olaf Scholz, the mayor of Hamburg, and the labor minister, Andrea Nahles, are reported to prefer to wait until a possible bid in 2021, when perhaps Ms. Merkel will no longer be interested in the post.
But it will be an uphill battle for Mr. Gabriel to unseat the chancellor. Despite the controversy over Ms. Merkel’s open-door refugee policy and internal divisions in her own party, there is little appetite in Germany for a change at the top.
Currently only 16 percent of Germans polled want to see Mr. Gabriel as chancellor, compared to 46 percent who prefer Ms. Merkel.
Mr. Gabriel’s strong support for German industry, and his backing of the controversial TTIP trade deal between Europe and the United States, has not endeared him to his party’s grassroots voters, or boosted support for the SPD.
The country’s chaotic, costly transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, which Mr. Gabriel’s economics ministry oversees, has been another drag on his popularity.
Ms. Merkel set the transition in motion after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, and the costs of subsidies for wind and solar producers, and now the decommissioning of nuclear and coal-fired power plants, are being borne directly by German consumers, who already pay some of Europe’s highest energy bills.
On the other hand, Mr. Gabriel’s candidacy roots his party firmly in the polical center, where most votes are won. Ms. Merkel has been hugely successful by moving the Christian Democrats to the political center, campaigning to the right but ruling from the left, to the consternation of her own political base. In the process she has robbed the center-left SPD of many of its bread-and-butter issues on the environment and pensions.
Ms. Merkel even signed on to enact Germany’s first minimum wage, angering her own supporters and the SPD.
As for 2017, it is not yet clear which issues and policies Mr. Gabriel hopes to highlight in the campaign.
“In these fast-moving times, it’s too early for that,” one of his advisors, who declined to be named, told Handelsblatt. “However, there’s one thing everyone realizes, Gabriel has stamina.”
The refugee issue, the dominant theme domestically at the moment, offers the SPD leader little opportunity to raise his profile.
However, his trip to Moscow this week allows him to showcase his commitment to promoting German business interests abroad, something the German chancellor also regularly does. Mr. Gabriel’s trip to Moscow is focusing on energy and industry ties between the countries, which have suffered amid Western sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea and support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
On Wednesday during a meeting with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, Mr. Gabriel said Moscow had to work harder to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, otherwise business ties between Russia and Germany would suffer. He is holding talks with energy minister, Alexander Novak, on Thursday.
Internationally, Mr. Gabriel has been an ambassador for German industry, making trips to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, as well as China and the United States. He often travels with business delegations in tow, opening doors for Germany’s small and mid-sized business and big DAX firms.
An astute political actor, Mr. Gabriel was one of the first Western politicians to visits Tehran after its nuclear deal with the West.
The 56-year-old’s official trips aim to redefine the profile of his party, one that emphasizes economic competency and support for business.
He also wants to create an alternative to an alliance between the CDU and the Greens in 2017, one of the possible election outcomes, by contrasting his pro-industry positions to a rival coalition led by Ms. Merkel that would be built on eco-conservatism.
Nevertheless, this repositioning of the Social Democrats, who last held the chancellery under Gerhard Schröder, toward the political center is viewed with mistrust by many in the party’s influential left wing who feel its role should defend workers’ interests.
Mr. Gabriel’s enthusiastic support for the TTIP pact, for example, has rankled many in his own, as did his support for new German data retention laws.
This week, his own party reacted largely positively to his announcement. At a time when Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats seemed increasingly at odds over the refugee crisis, many Social Democrats are happy their party is offering an alternative. No one expects Mr. Gabriel not to win his party’s nomination.
“It is clear that the party leader has first call on the chancellor candidacy,” Johannes Kahrs, an SPD lawmaker, told Handelsblatt Global Edition.
Mr. Gabriel’s leadership is undisputed, Mr. Kahrs said, adding there were no other obvious candidates to even mount a nomination contest.
“He can do it,” Mr. Kahrs said. “Gabriel is one of those politicians who wants to make a difference and push things forward.”
Heike Anger reports on politics in Berlin for Handelsblatt. Klaus Stratmann covers energy policy from Berlin. Hans-Jürgen Jakobs is co-editor in chief. Siobhán Dowling, an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition, contributed to this report. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.