Could This Be the End of the Angela Merkel Era?

Martin Schulz and Angela Merkel
Martin Schulz (L) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a European Union leaders summit over migration, in Brussels, March 17, 2016. A poll shows Shultz is reviving the fortunes of his Social Democrat (SPD) party. Yves Herman/REUTERS

The German federal election suddenly got more exciting. Only two weeks ago, Angela Merkel seemed all but sure to continue as chancellor after the September election.

But that was before Martin Schulz entered the fray. Unexpectedly, the Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel stepped aside and handed the leadership to the former speaker of the European Parliament. And now the latter is surging in the polls. According to the Deutschlandtrend poll published last week, Schulz is now the preferred candidate for the chancellorship in Germany: 50 percent of the German voters prefer the Social Democrat. Only 39 percent opted for the incumbent. That is remarkable given Merkel’s previous popularity.

Add to this that Schulz’s party, the SPD, has gained 8 percent support in a week when Christian Democrats and their sister-party the CSU have lost 4 percent and one can understand the euphoria that has broken out among the long-suffering Social Democrats.

At the beginning of the millennium, the SPD was the largest party in Germany. But then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s harsh economic reforms—known as Hartz IV, which reformed social welfare—cost the once powerful socialist party dearly. The party split in two, and Angela Merkel proved to be a more centrist politician than many had expected.

While nominally a conservative, the current chancellor introduced social legislation that chimed with center-left voters. Even Social Democrat voters regarded Merkel as Alternativlos— without any alternative. And Nikolaus Blome, the former political editor of the tabloid newspaper Bild compared Merkel to the German soccer team Bayern Munich, a top-of-the-league team.

So will all this change? Will the Social Democrats finally wrestle power from the most influential politician in Europe? Is Martin Schulz the savior they have been waiting for?

A credible challenger makes for good headlines. And no credible observer can deny that Martin Schulz has made a formidable start. But there are several reasons why he will not necessarily take over the keys to the imposing building on Willy Brandt Strasse 1, the office of Germany’s head of government.

For starters, the German political system is not presidential like the American one. The chancellor is not the most popular politician, but the leader of the party that can win the support of the smaller parties. That chancellor must be able to command a majority in the 630-seat Bundestag, the German federal parliament.

Because Germany has a largely proportional electoral system, the largest party rarely wins a majority. (That has only happened once when the 81 year-old Christian Democrat Konrad Adenauer won 50.2 percent of the votes in 1957.)

For Schulz to become chancellor he needs to assemble a coalition of the Green Party, the far-left former communists Die Linke , as well as his own Social Democrats. Based on opinion polls, that is a possibility. The so-called Red-Red-Green coalition currently has the support of 44 percent of the voters. By contrast, Merkel and her likely coalition partner, the liberal FDP, poll a mere 40 percent.

However, it is far from certain that the centrist Social Democrats will be able to work with the far left. While Red-Red-Green coalitions exist at the state level—including in the capital, Berlin—forming such a coalition will be difficult at the federal level. Indeed, the three parties currently have a majority in the Bundestag but the Social Democrats ruled out working with the former communists after the 2013 election.

But again, exceptional circumstances mean that history is not likely to repeat itself after the next election. The fact that Die Linke’s leader then was the former Social Democrat finance minister Oscar Lafontaine made it impossible for Sigmar Gabriel to work with him, because of Lafontaine’s history with and criticism of the SPD after he left the party.

Another concern for Martin Schulz is that other Social Democrat challengers, such as Frank-Walter Steinmeier in 2009 and Peer Steinbrück in 2013, were initially enjoying exceptionally high poll numbers but dropped rapidly as they made mistakes during the campaign.

Could the same thing happen to Martin Schulz? It’s unlikely. Unlike his predecessors, Martin Schulz is untainted by the past. He has not been a member of the Grand Coalition and is not responsible for the cuts and austerity programs enacted by the current government. And he does not have the personal animosity towards Die Linke, who now have a different leadership.

Schulz’s ability to speak in Klartext— German for unequivocal and without caveats—has proved efficient, especially when contrasted with Merkel who prefers behind-the-scenes compromises and rarely subjects opponents to direct criticism.

Many Germans have, for obvious historical reasons, an aversion against leaders who use colorful rhetoric as a weapon. But Schulz is—his oratorical style notwithstanding—not a populist. He is a mainstream politician who speaks to working-class sentiments, but without resorting to simplistic solutions. Indeed, critics will say he has presented no policies at all. That his bombastic style reminds older voters of the legendary Social Democrat Chancellor Willy Brandt from the early 1970s may ultimately be a good thing.

Previously, all attention had focused on the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which had beaten Angela Merkel’s CDU into third-place at the regional elections in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where Angela Merkel’s own constituency is located. But recent infighting and controversial comments by local representatives about the Nazi past has dented the support for the populist party. Merkel now faces a different problem; she is losing votes to the Social Democrats.

Merkel might still be the favorite for the elections but for the first time since 2004, she is facing a charismatic opponent who is not marred by past sins. Schulz may just be able to topple Germany’s first-ever female chancellor.

Professor Matthew Qvortrup is author of Angela Merkel: Germany’s Most Influential Leader. The second edition of his book will be published by Duckworth on the 1 March.