News that a recent opinion poll has put the SPD for the first time one point ahead of Angela’s Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc has inevitably triggered speculation about whether or not she is now in serious danger of losing the forthcoming German parliamentary elections.
It is far too early to say that. Undoubtedly the SPD has received a strong boost from its decision to appoint former European Parliament President Martin Schulz as its candidate for Chancellor. Unlike almost every other prominent SPD politician Schulz has never worked alongside Merkel in any coalition cabinet, and is not therefore compromised by association with her. He is also seen widely seen as a more popular and stronger figure than the SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel whom he replaces.
Schulz however differs little from Merkel on foreign policy questions, and the extent of his differences with Merkel on domestic issues is for an outsider difficult to judge. The parliamentary elections are not due till November, and it is far obvious that Schulz will be able to sustain what for the moment looks very much like a bounce.
What could turn out to be an ephemeral lead by the SPD over Merkel does however show one thing: the extent to which Merkel’s hitherto impregnable position in German politics has weakened, and the extent to which many Germans have tired of her, and long for an alternative to her.
This is not because Merkel has been Chancellor for a long time. In Germany’s incumbency confers a huge advantage, with Helmut Kohl in 1998 being the first Chancellor to lose a parliamentary election in Germany after the Second World War. It is rather that with growing challenges in Europe and in Germany’s dealings with Donald Trump’s US, Merkel is looking increasingly short of answers.
Whether the German people will eventually decide that Martin Schulz is the person to find those answers is open to doubt, but his sudden rise in the polls shows how much desire for an alternative to Merkel there now is.