Sigmar Gabriel reported as set to run against Angela Merkel

Germany’s Social Democrat leader has decided to contest chancellorship, says ‘Bild’

Germany’s deputy chancellor and economics minister Sigmar Gabriel with the chancellor, Angela Merkel. Photograph: Steffi Loos/AFP/Getty

Germany’s deputy chancellor and economics minister Sigmar Gabriel with the chancellor, Angela Merkel. Photograph: Steffi Loos/AFP/Getty

 

After months of speculation, Germany’s Social Democrat (SPD) leader Sigmar Gabriel has reportedly decided to run against Angela Merkel in the autumn federal election.

His party declined to comment on a report on Tuesday in the usually reliable Bild tabloid, saying the SPD would present its challenger at the end of the month.

Mr Gabriel is deputy chancellor and economics minister in the coalition government led by Dr Merkel.

Hampered by low popularity ratings and a mercurial reputation, he has been cagey until now on whether he would run for the chancellorship. After deferring to other SPD candidates in the last two federal elections, speculation was growing the 57 year old might again sit out an election few believe he can win.

That speculation was fired by news of the return from Brussels of Martin Schulz, departing European Parliament president.

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With Mr Gabriel likely to throw his hat into the ring, however, Mr Schulz is headed for the foreign ministry, to replace the incumbent, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whom ruling parties have agreed to elect as German president next month.

Mr Gabriel declined to be drawn on his plans yesterday, though he said it was unlikely there would be a run-off competition within his party. “Polling members presumes that there are serious opponents, two or three people who say ‘under no circumstances can it be this or that person, I’m better’,” said Mr Gabriel.

Popular leader

Running against Dr Merkel is seen as a largely thankless task within the SPD because, despite taking a hit over the refugee crisis, she remains by far the more popular leader.

Her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is steady on 37 per cent in polls while the SPD is stuck on a historic low of about 20 per cent. When voters are asked who they would prefer to be chancellor, Dr Merkel is the clear favourite.

In recent weeks, Mr Gabriel suggested there could be up to three candidates to lead the SPD campaign: himself, Mr Schulz and Hamburg governor Olaf Scholz. But the Bild report, and Mr Gabriel’s own remarks, suggest the other two would-be candidates have signalled they will not challenge the party leader should he intend to run.

Running against Dr Merkel will be a political challenge. First, Mr Gabriel has to shift from government to campaigning against his boss. Second, he has to signal to voters whether he favours a return of the current CDU-SPD grand coalition, making it the third such arrangement since 2005, or a new left-wing alliance with the Greens and Left Party – seen as unlikely within the party.

Mr Gabriel’s mixed signals have annoyed some within the party, who fear his lack of clarity will do little to boost the party’s chances in the autumn. Even his mentor, ex-chancellor Gerhard Schröder, lost patience, according to Bild, joking that he would return to politics himself unless Mr Gabriel entered the race.