A few weeks ago nobody in Germany had any doubt that Angela Merkel would be confirmed as Chancellor again in September’s federal elections. She was considered to be competent, efficient, focused on the right issues and well-regarded abroad. In short: people thought that she was looking after German and European interests. Polls showed her sister parties CDU/CSU leading the Social Democrats by a large margin (35% v 21%) and more than twice as many Germans would have voted for her as compared to the then SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel in a straight vote to choose the Chancellor.
So the question was: what government could the elected chancellor form? The grand coalition is no longer popular in Germany but, apart from the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, no two parties can hope to win a majority of seats in the Bundestag. And even a coalition of three parties does not automatically guarantee a majority. The SPD plus the Greens and the Left (a coalition in power in Berlin) can win a majority only if the SPD increases its vote substantially. The CDU/CSU cannot govern with either the Greens or the Liberals (FDP) alone, but would have to form a government of all three parties. This may prove to be more difficult than assumed at first sight, since the parties differ on important issues. It would also require the Liberals to get back into the Bundestag, which, however, looks very likely today.
This scenario changed dramatically a few days ago, when Gabriel stood down and recommended Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament, as challenger to Angela Merkel and new party president. The polls immediately changed. The CDU/CSU lead is still large but in a straight fight Schulz scores equal to Merkel. Schulz has made it quite clear that he is fighting to be Chancellor, not just to improve the SPD’s position. He has become well-known in Germany since the last European elections (2014), when he tried to win against Jean-Claude Juncker as “Spitzenkandidat” of EU socialists to be European Commission president. Schulz is a charismatic speaker, he knows how to handle ordinary voters, he is not considered part of the elite that has lost touch with Joe/Jane Bloggs. After overcoming a troubled past as a young man, his message is simple: what I did, everybody can do. No wonder many youngsters consider him an ideal motivating candidate.
Does he have a real chance of becoming Chancellor? Ever since Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US President nothing should be excluded. But I will stick out my neck and say that Merkel will stay in office and that it is not even certain the Social Democrats will be able to defend their position as junior partner in the next government. Much will depend upon the outcome of five elections that will take place before the federal elections in the Fall, three in German Länder and two in neighboring countries with highly symbolic value. The three are the Saar, North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW) and Schleswig-Holstein, with the NRW election already proving decisive in the past. Should the SPD lose NRW in May it will also lose in September. All three elections will show whether or not the Liberals have good prospects of re-entering the Bundestag. The elections in the Netherlands and France will reveal how much mistrust in the EU has grown and how big populist parties have become. Should the populists increase their support, this may have, paradoxically, a dampening effect on the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the German right-wing nationalist party, since Germans want stability and they know how important a well-functioning EU is tor their future.
The SPD has managed to introduce legislation as junior partner aimed at establishing more social justice in Germany such as a statutory minimum wage, equal pay for men and women doing the same job, pensions at age 63 etc. Even so, the effect on the SPD’s standing among voters has basically been zero. So it is more than doubtful that choosing “social justice” as the key message for the campaign, as Schulz has announced, will work and bring about the drastic change in voting intentions required. In addition, if the current economic situation and position of refugees does not change dramatically, Merkel has every good chance to win again – especially now that Horst Seehofer, the CSU head, who has attacked the chancellor violently in the past over her approach to the refugee problem, has now endorsed her as ideal candidate for Chancellor.