German Elections
A Threat from Merkel’s Left?

The race for the next German Chancellor just got a little more interesting. While much of the West has been busy worrying about the growing popularity of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, a new poll suggests that Angela Merkel’s main challenge could come from her left: namely, Social Democratic Party candidate Martin Schulz. Deutsche Welle:

German voters would elect the Social Democratic Party (SDP) candidate Martin Schulz as German chancellor if direct elections were to be held today, an opinion poll conducted for the German broadcaster ARD revealed Thursday.

Schulz would receive 50 percent of votes casts while Angela Merkel, the current chancellor and head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), would receive 34 percent of the vote. […]

Schulz’s capture of half the electorate was a 9 percentage point increase in comparison to the end of January, Merkel saw her share of the vote drop by 7 percentage points. Seven percent of those polled said they would choose neither Schulz nor Merkel.

Of course, the Schulz surge could just be temporary, reflecting initial excitement about his entry into the race late last month. And since Germans do not vote directly for Chancellor, they will not face the binary choice offered in the poll. The ultimate selection of Chancellor depends on how well Merkel’s and Schulz’s respective parties do in September.

Nonetheless, the news adds an interesting wrinkle to an election that will be closely watched as a sign of the political mood in Europe. Merkel, whose standing has been damaged by her refugee policy, has lately been trying to shore up support among conservatives with measures like the burqa ban. That delicate balancing act might be complicated by the prospect of a serious challenger from the left.

Schulz’s candidacy could also set him on a collision course with Trump on a wide range of policy issues. Schulz is, if anything, an even more ardent defender of the European institutional order than Merkel. Schulz cut his teeth in Brussels as a Member of European Parliament, eventually rising to become its President. Along the way, he has taken a series of positions that are anathema to the current leadership in Washington: he pursued diplomacy with Iran, led efforts to lift European sanctions on Cuba, and staked out a hardline position on Brexit. And as he returns to German politics, Schulz is making no efforts to hide his distaste toward the new U.S. President. He has labeled Trump’s travel ban “un-American,” denounced the President as an “obviously irresponsible man,” and urged Trump not to scrap sanctions on Russia.

Given Trump’s populist agenda and the criticisms he has already made of German policy, U.S.-German relations will likely get testy no matter who takes the reins in Berlin. But a Schulz victory against Merkel would only intensify the divide—and after a year of electoral upsets, that prospect cannot be ruled out.

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