- - Monday, February 6, 2017

BERLIN, Germany — Since Angela Merkel became German chancellor in 2005, few contenders have even come close to challenging her dominance, even in the wake of unpopular stances like her open-door policy toward refugees.

But in a shifting global climate that has spawned political earthquakes such as Britain’s exit from the European Union and President Trump’s entry into the White House, even the so-called Iron Chancellor may not be as invulnerable as once believed.

Last week, in a surprise move, Germany’s center-left Social Democrats — currently a decidedly junior member in Ms. Merkel’s broad coalition government — chose the ex-president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, to replace their outgoing leader and run the party’s campaign for September’s elections.

Now as the surprise choice is being digested here, political forecasters say Mr. Schulz may give Ms. Merkel a run for her money, saying his charisma and working-class roots could help win back voters dissatisfied with the chancellor’s calculated status quo.

“In a way, he’s the anti-Merkel type,” said Olaf Boehnke, an associate fellow with the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), a Berlin think tank. “He’s a full-blooded politician who really burns for the stuff he’s doing. He’s very passionate about it. But at the same time, he has a very credible image.”

According to German broadcaster ARD’s latest poll, the bearded, 61-year-old Mr. Schulz, a onetime bookshop owner, would win the chancellorship in a landslide with 50 percent to Ms. Merkel’s 34 percent — if Germany’s leaders were directly elected rather than chosen by the Bundestag, the federal parliament.

The Social Democrats, known here as the SPD, have also benefited since Mr. Schulz’s selection: With just over seven months to go before federal elections Sept. 24, Mr. Schulz and his party have edged ahead of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats by 31 percent to 30 percent in a new INSA poll out Monday by Bild newspaper — the SPD’s first polling lead over the CDU in a decade.

The fringe parties at both ends of the spectrum could have a say in the result, according to the poll. The anti-immigrant populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) was third with 12 percent, followed by the hard-left Die Linke party at 10 percent.

Ms. Merkel’s party and its conservative allies took 41 percent of the vote in the previous Bundestag election in 2013.

Mr. Schulz “has succeeded above all in winning back former SPD voters and addressing them in an emotional away,” pollster Torsten Schneider-Haase told Bild. “Such a powerful shift in party preference within a week is unparalleled.”

After a long period in which the party tacked to the middle, supporters say Mr. Schulz would pull the Social Democrats back to their ideological roots of representing workers and fighting for social justice reforms, analysts said. Former party head and German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel never pursued those goals and alienated party elites with his contentious management style.

“Gabriel never managed to fulfill expectations,” said Mr. Boehnke. “He created a lot of confusion and, at one point, I think he just kind of lost it.”

Mr. Gabriel claimed to have bowed out voluntarily, but he was never seen as a credible threat to Ms. Merkel’s grasp on power the way Mr. Schulz is now being portrayed.

“We have much better chances with Schulz,” Social Democratic parliamentarian Karl Lauterbach told reporters after the decision. “We want a new beginning.”

Good fit

Mr. Schulz’s background fits well with his politics and his party’s base. He grew up one of five children in a small mining town on the western edge of Germany, where his prime ambition was to become a professional soccer player. Held back twice in school, he quit in the 11th grade to focus on athletics. A debilitating injury soon thereafter quickly dashed those dreams, however, catalyzing a turbulent period of alcoholism that almost ended in suicide.

Mr. Schulz slowly built himself back up, entering the book business as he also contemplated public service. Entering local politics, he eventually became mayor of the small town of Wurselen, a position he held for seven years.

He remained in the municipality for the next two decades, representing its constituents as a legislator in the European Parliament, rising over time to become the parliament’s president.

It’s his ability to relate to the struggles of Germany’s working-class that Mr. Schulz himself believes will propel him to the chancellorship, despite a shifting political climate in Germany that has heavy populist undertones.

“Everything is possible,” Mr. Schulz recently told the popular political journalist Anne Will. “We can win back voters from an array of situations when we make clear that we represent not the superrich but the hard-working middle class of this country.”

Dethroning Ms. Merkel won’t be easy, though, say observers.

Ms. Merkel’s steady hand steered Germany through a slalom course of European crises — from the global financial meltdown and the eurozone crisis to the rise of Islamist terrorism and a massive influx of refugees from the Middle East and elsewhere — while Mr. Schulz has yet to prove himself on the national — let alone the global — stage.

“SPD election slogans don’t provide us with any answers,” wrote Holger Steltzner in an op-ed for the conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “Which party doesn’t want social security for the elderly, fair wages or affordable housing? What politician doesn’t promise legislative action for the working class?”

While Mr. Schulz might be able to “electrify” lower-income voters tempted by the populist rhetoric of Germany’s increasingly popular far-right Alternative for Germany party, Mr. Boehnke said Ms. Merkel was too savvy a politician to write off, despite rising popular anger over her liberal immigration policies. The landscape of German politics is littered with the carcasses of candidates who underestimated the uncharismatic Ms. Merkel’s toughness and special bond with voters.

“She’s the one you can never really explain — you can never really forecast or interpret her in the right way. She still remains this mysterious policy animal,” he said. “In the end, you’re still competing with Merkel.”

Ms. Merkel can also bank on Germany’s parliamentary system, which forces coalition building between parties, to stave off the challenge from Mr. Schulz. For him to become chancellor, the Social Democrats would likely need to cobble together a coalition that’s even broader than Ms. Merkel’s grand coalition government, where they sit now.

Martin Schulz only has the unpopular and controversial left coalition,” said Ralf Welt, a managing partner at Dicomm Advisors, a communications and political consultancy in Berlin. “Angela Merkel has many options.”

Even so, the election promises to be interesting, if only because Ms. Merkel will have to work much harder than in the past to win a fourth term.

“Maybe with Schulz, the dusty SPD will have new wind blown into its sails,” said Werner Scholz, 77, a part-time sales representative in Berlin. “But I don’t think he’ll win against Merkel. It’ll be a roller-coaster ride.”

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