February 28, 2017 - by Oliver Schmidtke, Center for Global Studies, University of Victoria
Until recently, Angela Merkel’s grip on power appeared rock solid. As part of the currently ruling grand collation, Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) were not able to form a viable alternative to Merkel’s 12-year reign nor did they show any particular eagerness to establish the government after the upcoming September 2017 elections. Many political commentators already predicted the irreversible end of the SPD as Germany’s ‘People’s Party’. Similarly, the rise of the right-wing, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany does not pose a veritable challenge to the supremacy of Chancellor Merkel. There are clear indications that the Party has outlived its hype in the wake of the refugee crisis and that projected electoral support levels are back in the single digits. Until the end of 2016, a fourth term in office for Merkel was almost a fail accomplish more than six months before the elections.
Yet, events over the past few weeks indicate how volatile electoral politics has become in Western liberal democracies. In late January, Germany’s Social Democrats nominated Martin Schulz as their candidate for chancellor, reacting to the sobering realization that Sigmar Gabriel, chairman of the SPD and the current Minister for Foreign Affairs, simply proved unappealing to the electorate. What has happened over the past month is truly remarkable considering how we normally think about party preferences and loyalty. A party that seemed to be resigned to losing yet another election, deprived of any inspiration, has come to life from one day to the other. The SPD has seen the massive influx of new members; the ‘Martin Schulz fever’ has spread all across the country. While at the beginning of 2017, the SPD was projected to attract somewhat more than 20% of electoral support, most recent surveys put the party above 30%, if not in the lead over Merkel’s Christian Democrats. And, most notably given Angela Merkel’s long standing popularity, Martin Schulz is now leading Merkel as the public’s preferred candidate for the chancellorship.