Carsten Brzeski's blog

Germany: Merkel's got a rival

With SPD-leader Gabriel’s announcement not to run in this year’s elections, the road has been paved for Martin Schulz to become Angela Merkel’s rival.

For a long while, it seemed as if the German election campaign would become as exciting as the last seasons of the Bundesliga, which were dominated by Bayern Munich from the first match day to the last. Despite some scratches to her popularity, Chancellor Merkel and her party have been uncontested and dominating the opinion polls. This could now change.

Yesterday, vice-chancellor, minster of economic affairs and leader of Merkel’s junior coalition partner, the SPD, Sigmar Gabriel announced that he would not run against Angela Merkel in the elections. He will also resign as party leader. Instead, Gabriel proposed the just-resigned president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, as front-runner for the elections and new party leader. It is an abrupt end to an inner SPD debate, which started in November when Martin Schulz announced his move into national politics. In the coming days, the SPD is now expected to officially confirm Schulz as front-runner for the elections. In our view, it is not yet certain whether Schulz will also become party leader. Although the combination of both roles is very common in German politics, Schulz might also want to spend all his energy on his candidacy as chancellor and share leadership in the party by making Hamburg mayor, Olaf Scholz, or Sigmar Gabriel party leader. It could be an interesting move to earn broader support in the party.

While many commentators were surprised by Gabriel’s announcement, bringing Schulz forward in the upcoming election campaign could be a smart move. According to opinion polls, Gabriel’s popularity, both in the general German public but also in his own party, has been weak for a long while. The odds for the SPD to close the gap with the CDU or to at least leave the current all-time lows in opinion polls looked very low if Gabriel had been the party’s front-runner for the elections. With Martin Schulz, the party now tries to present a real alternative to Angela Merkel. His personal background, being a former alcoholic, speaking six languages and having no high school diploma, already distinguishes him from many other national politicians. Even more important, in the German public opinion Schulz has become the embodiment of Europe. As president of the European Parliament, Schulz was omnipresent in the German media and public debate on all European issues. Schulz has also been a vocal advocate of further European integration. Contrary to Angela Merkel, he is known for clear, sometimes provocative, statements. An interesting side-effect of Schulz’s running for chancellor could be that his clear pro-European vision forces Merkel to put her own cards on the table. Still, we don’t think that European topics will decide the elections.

In our view, Martin Schulz should clearly make the German election campaign more interesting. He could also be able to hurt Ms Merkel, as his personality is probably better fit to present an alternative to Angela Merkel than Gabriel’s. Currently, Merkel’s CDU is still ahead of the SPD. According to latest opinion polls, Merkel’s CDU stands at 37%, with the SPD trailing far behind with 20%. With Schulz, the SPD could be able to close this gap somewhat. However, it would need a significant closing of this gap before a coalition without the CDU as biggest party would become a feasible option.

All in all, yesterday’s news were not only the start to the German election year, they should also make the election year more exciting than many had thought previously. Returning to soccer, this year’s Bundesliga season is the most exciting season in years with much smaller differences between the top performers. The league, however, is currently still headed by Bayern Munich...