Martin Schulz, Angela Merkel’s new Social Democrat challenger, has stirred German politics by helping his party establish a lead over the chancellor’s conservatives in a national opinion poll — the first in more than a decade.
The rise in support, two weeks after Mr Schulz was picked as the SPD’s leader, increases the uncertainty in the run-up to the September Bundestag election and raises the possibility that Ms Merkel — once seemingly invulnerable — might even be defeated in her bid for a fourth term in office.
“This is phenomenal,” said Hermann Binkert, head of the Insa agency, which published its results on Monday. “I would have said it was impossible to improve your ratings by 10 percentage points in 14 days. But that’s what’s happened.”
According to Insa, support for the SPD has risen from 21 per cent two weeks ago, just before the former European Parliament president took over as party leader, to 31 per cent. The party has grabbed support from Ms Merkel’s Christian Democrat/Christian Socialist bloc, which is down from 32.5 per cent to 30 per cent, and from smaller parties, including the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD).
While other pollsters still put the conservatives ahead of the SPD, all recent surveys show the Social Democrats, which are in government in a “grand coalition” with Ms Merkel, have rapidly gained ground since Mr Schulz returned to German politics and succeeded Sigmar Gabriel as the party’s leader and presidential candidate.
During the refugee crisis of the past two years, most of the pressure on the chancellor has come from the political right as the AfD has won support by demanding tough action to curb migrant inflows. Ms Merkel has repeatedly resisted moving to the right herself, fearing that ceding the centre ground, where she has won three elections, could be dangerous.
On Monday, she underlined that her CDU/CSU bloc would respond to the challenge from Mr Schulz by pledging to appeal “to all the people in the country” and saying her bloc would remain “the party of the middle”.
The conservatives took 41 per cent of the vote in the previous Bundestag election in 2013.
Ms Merkel was speaking at a joint press conference with Horst Seehofer, head of the Bavaria-based CSU, who said the party would endorse Ms Merkel. The two parties have campaigned together for decades, but the refugee crisis has strained their alliance, with Mr Seehofer repeatedly calling for a refugee quota despite Ms Merkel’s opposition.
The two leaders said on Monday they would launch a joint election campaign but agreed to differ over quotas.
Mr Binkert suggested Mr Schulz’s rise was no flash in the pan and that voters had been showing their frustrations with Ms Merkel for two years. “It needed somebody to bring together those frustrations. Schulz has benefited,” he said. “He has made an emotional connection with the voters.”
Even coming first in September’s elections would not guarantee Mr Schulz power because the SPD would almost certainly lack an overall majority and have to seek coalition partners.
Mr Schulz’s options could include renewing the alliance with the CDU/CSU — with the SPD in charge for the first time — or seeking a centre-left government with the Green and far-left Left parties.
The Financial Times