Any standard prediction of the elections would have been another centre-left victory at the polls and a fourth Merkel term. However, this week the race in Germany’s election year has been shaken up, as the current Social Democratic Party (SPD) party leader Sigmar Gabriel paves the way for his predecessor Martin Schulz. Will Schulz be able to challenge Angela Merkel in the September election?

For the longest time, the two main pillars of political representation in Germany have been the Christian Democrats (CDU) (with their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, CSU) on the one hand, and the SPD on the other. These two parties were able to represent various positions on the right and left side of the political spectrum. Today, long-term polling indicates that the two dominant political camps are not running neck-and-neck anymore. CDU/CSU are leading in the polls, with over 35 percent of likely voters. While the SPD trails with ca. 20 percent. This in one of the main reasons for the turmoil in the Social Democratic Party. Overall, the way Sigmar Gabriel handled changes at head of the SPD indicates how nervous the Social Democrats currently are.

Martin Schulz, the Social Democrats’ newly appointed candidate, has only ”one-and-a-half” ways to power: a full-blown victory of the SPD/Green/Left party camp or a “traffic light” coalition with the Greens and the Liberals. Whereas a SPD/Green/Left party coalition is unlikely to win, a “traffic light” coalition has more potential. Though all opinion polls show that there is no majority on the horizon due to the structural weakness of the SPD, the rather popular Martin Schulz is not a “game changer” in German politics. Schulz’s elevation is likely to reinvigorate the party’s base, but it remains unclear whether the change in top candidates will be sufficient to strengthen the SPD. Only few people see him as the only convincing alternative to CDU/CSU and a clear Merkel challenger.

Chancellor Merkel benefits from a booming economy and despite wide-spread critics on migration politics, she and her party are still very popular. Her main opponents do not nearly as well in opinion polls as Merkel herself. And she has many options to remain in power. She could continue with her current partner, the Social Democratic Party. Or build a coalition with the Liberals and the Greens as junior partners. Since the change of track on energy policy with the “Energiewende” and the pro-migration policy approach in 2015, there are no hurdles left to form a coalition with the Greens. Merkel’s former coalition partner, the Liberals, is working on a political comeback and there are some chances that they will be able to form a government with the Conservatives in Schleswig-Holstein or North Rhine-Westphalia before autumn.
With an established right-wing populist party, Germany nowadays faces a six-party system that will see varying and colorful coalitions. And though weakened by the backlash against her welcoming stance towards refugees, Angela Merkel remains Germany’s dominant political figure.

About the author:
Anders Mertzlufft, Director