Schulz, Merkel, and Gabriel: The ebb and flow of electoral politics

For both Merkel and Schulz, the upcoming campaign will be a litmus test of their European outlook.

Martin Schulz, a well-known but relatively new heavyweight in German politics, has stepped into the ring to fight for the German Chancellery in September 2017. Yet his surprise nomination by party chairman and Minister for Economics Sigmar Gabriel reveals more about the state of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) than about who will emerge victorious from the general election.

In recent weeks Gabriel had been more aggressive than usual, bombarding the media with statements, policy papers, and an enhanced public presence, suggesting he was determined to serve as the SPD’s candidate for the chancellery. Schulz’s best option, on the other hand, appeared to be following Frank-Walter Steinmeier as foreign minister, once the latter had taken over as President of the Republic from Joachim Gauck.

This possibility had opened up just before the Christmas recess: Through nimble manoeuvring, Gabriel had been able to secure the support of Angela Merkel and her conservative CDU/CSU union for a Steinmeier presidency. This was seen as a major victory for the SPD: Steinmeier would make a popular President, while an experienced, high-calibre European would replace him as foreign minister (sparring with Merkel on European affairs every step of the way), laying the foundations for a strong SPD showing in the 2017 elections.

Gabriel’s tour de force was, however, critically undermined by one simple flaw: his own lack of popularity among the electorate. After Martin Schulz announced in November 2016 that he would depart Brussels and make a foray into German politics, public polling showed him to be far more popular than Gabriel. More recent polls have even suggested that, if the German electorate were to vote directly for their chancellor, Schulz could topple Merkel.

Internal party polling of Gabriel’s popularity among SPD members was even more damning, and it was these numbers that would prove the final blow for the chairman. He had seen how the unpopular Peer Steinbrück had led the party to an electoral collapse in 2013, and it was this that persuaded him not to run for the chancellery. Naturally, this meant he would have to resign from the position of party chair as well.

When the announcement came, it took the German political class – including most of the SPD – by complete surprise. There had been no prior indication that such a dramatic reversal of fortunes was on the cards. Maintaining secrecy until the last minute allowed Gabriel to retain control of the issue and present himself as acting decisively in the party’s interests, thereby preserving his future within the party as Steinmeier’s successor in the German Foreign Ministry.

These are the same dynamics of power and information which keep Merkel atop her party. If word ever escaped her inner circle that she was considering stepping down, her control over her party – and likely her time as chancellor – would be over.

Gabriel, it seems, is eager to finally acquire a cabinet position which comes with enhanced popularity. This is especially true of the role of Foreign Minister: all post-war holders of the office (with the possible exception of the late Guido Westerwelle) have risen to the top of opinion polls during their tenure.

Schulz, meanwhile, now faces the daunting task of running against a seemingly unassailable Angela Merkel, whose popularity has recovered since the lows of the refugee crisis in 2015/2016. His chances of landing a knockout blow in this duel are slim. Not only would his own party have to perform exceedingly well in September, but he would also require strong performances from the Greens and the Left party to open the door for a three-way coalition, dubbed “Red-Red-Green” in German circles. But slightly less favourable results could still grant Schulz a strong hand in negotiations over a “Grand Coalition” with Merkel.

On her side, Chancellor Merkel will likely emerge from this electoral brawl with four coalition options: continuing the present “Grand Coalition,” a coalition with the Greens and the Liberals (should the latter pass the 5 percent threshold), a coalition with only the Greens should the CDU/CSU perform particularly well, or a coalition with the right-wing “Alternative für Deutschland.” The latter two options are extremely improbable and will almost certainly remain theoretical, yet this enumeration of potential outcomes demonstrates the astounding structural dominance of Merkel and her party.

Looking outwards to the European implications of this contest, observers have concluded that the SPD’s decision to run with Schulz over Gabriel guarantees that the next German chancellor will be a “strong European.” Martin Schulz himself, however, may disagree with this description being applied to his opponent. Merkel’s “European reflex” – her natural inclination to think and operate at the European level – is weak compared to Schulz’s deep-rooted European beliefs. From Schulz’s perspective, the EU is primarily important to her as an instrument or framework for German policy. In other words, when Merkel worries about Europe, she is actually concerned about Germany. By contrast, when Schulz worries about Europe, he worries about Europe.

For both Merkel and Schulz, then, the upcoming campaign will be a litmus test of their European outlook. Considering the strength of the German economy, which enjoys  record-high employment levels, the major issues shaping this “rumble in the jungle” are likely to be European issues. Campaign strategists are generally eager to keep foreign policy and international affairs out of the electoral discourse, but they will not be able to do so this time.

Thus, as two heavyweight contestants – both European, yet to differing degrees and for different reasons – come head-to-head, the prize will be won by the candidate who can convince an uncertain and timid electorate of their vision for Germany’s role and centrality in Europe. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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