News analysis

Germany's elections are suddenly unpredictable

For the first time in a decade, Merkel faces possibility of defeat - a self-inflicted one too

Politicians across Germany's political divide are congratulating themselves on the trouble-free election of Mr Frank-Walter Steinmeier, their long-serving foreign minister, as the country's new federal president.

"This is a good day for Germany," said Chancellor Angela Merkel after Sunday's special parliamentary meeting elected Mr Steinmeier by a large majority.

But coalescing around the selection of the largely ceremonial head of state is likely to be Germany's only example of political consensus this year. For ahead lie September's parliamentary elections in which, for the first time in a decade, Dr Merkel faces a real possibility of defeat, and mainly because President-elect Steinmeier's centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) are staging a strong and unexpected electoral recovery.

In power since 2005, Dr Merkel was widely predicted to trounce her opponents in this year's national elections. For although Germany's electoral system is designed to prevent any single party from gaining an absolute majority, her centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) were confidently projected to get around 40 per cent in the federal parliamentary elections scheduled for Sept 24, around 17 percentage points ahead of the SPD, their main rivals although also part of Dr Merkel's Grand Coalition government.

Germany's strong economic performance and soaring private consumption, which pushed growth to its highest levels in five years, also boosted Dr Merkel's re-election bid. And so did the fact that the SPD had no statesman or woman capable of matching Dr Merkel's stature. The only figure who remotely approached that standard was Mr Steinmeier, and by supporting his elevation to the post of president, Dr Merkel made sure that he was removed from the scene.

Yet that may well go down as one of her biggest own goals. For in a rare display of party unity, the SPD swiftly agreed to nominate Mr Martin Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament, as their electoral leader. Initially, Mr Schulz's acceptance looked like an act of desperation from a man dismissed across Europe as charisma-free. But he has turned out to be an inspired choice.

For the new leader has revived the SPD's fortunes, by not merely closing the gap with Dr Merkel's party but by actually taking the lead in opinion polls for the first time in years; latest surveys indicate that if elections were held today, Mr Schulz's SPD may get 31 per cent of the votes, one percentage point more than Dr Merkel's CDU.

Dr Merkel congratulating Mr Steinmeier on his election as Germany's president on Sunday. Instead of "eliminating" one rival in her bid for re-election, the Chancellor may have "created" another contender for the country's top post.
Dr Merkel congratulating Mr Steinmeier on his election as Germany's president on Sunday. Instead of "eliminating" one rival in her bid for re-election, the Chancellor may have "created" another contender for the country's top post. PHOTO: REUTERS

That would represent a spectacular turnaround, for the party with the highest share of the votes gets first chance at forming Germany's next coalition government, and the Socialists could enjoy a number of options. They could either form a "grand coalition" with the CDU, relegating the current ruling party to an inferior position in government, or they could put together a more left-wing ruling coalition with the Green and former communist parties; either will spell the end of Dr Merkel's political career.

The question is whether the "Schulz bounce", as it is now known, is sustainable. He has clearly benefited from being largely unknown, and therefore comes across as a breath of fresh air. But he has also proven to be a shrewd communicator by telling ordinary Germans that they are nowhere near as wealthy as their government claims them to be. Mr Schulz criticises the allegedly growing gap between the rich and the poor, and the fact that many of today's jobs are temporary.

Neither allegation is true: the wealth gap is actually narrowing, and the number of those in full employment is the highest it has been in decades, prompting the pugnacious Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble to accuse Mr Schulz of engaging in "post-factual" electoral methods similar to those used by US President Donald Trump.

Dr Merkel is also hit by voters' dissatisfaction with her 2015 decision to admit 1.2 million refugees. Despite promises to expel those subsequently found not to be entitled to asylum, the anti-immigrant backlash appears to be favouring the Alternative for Germany far-right nationalist party, now projected to win 12 per cent of the vote.

Dr Merkel can regain the initiative. But the gloves are off in what until now was a polite electoral campaign. And, as she ruefully admits, it would be the "toughest that I have ever experienced".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 14, 2017, with the headline 'Germany's elections are suddenly unpredictable'. Print Edition | Subscribe