Taking on Angela Merkel

Former European Parliament president Martin Schulz steps in as lead challenger

The crisis of legitimacy and credibility afflicting the European political establishment, and which is dragging down embattled traditional social democratic parties which were once the driving force of the continent's politics, is reflected in Germany as in France in fraught leadership transitions.

As the French Socialist Party prepares for this weekend's hard-fought internal second round vote, in Germany the Social Democrats (SPD) have seen the man expected to lead the challenge to Chancellor Angela Merkel in parliamentary elections scheduled for September walk away from the contest.

Party leader Sigmar Gabriel, who admits he would lose, gives every appearance of deserting a sinking ship, though ostensibly to spend more time with his family.

His place has been taken by former European Parliament President Martin Schulz who is probably almost as familiar to Irish followers of the parliament's business, courtesy of RTÉ, as he is to fellow SPD members. Opinion polls suggest, however, that he would perform better against Merkel than Gabriel, although his party is languishing up to 15 percentage points behind her's. A Bild am Sonntag poll this month showed her leading 39-38 per cent in a face-off between them.

Now elevated by many commentators to the status of "leader of the free world", Merkel will be seeking her fourth term as chancellor. But her authority has been bruised over immigration, with populist Alternativ fur Deutschland (currently polling at around 15 per cent) coming up on her right. The real challenge, however, is from her SPD coalition partner. Any significant gain in September for the latter would increase its options, most notably for a three-way coalition with the Greens and the anti-capitalist Left Party.

The personally popular and feisty campaigner Schultz, untarnished by any role in the coalition and with its more unpopular measures which have alienated part of the SPD’s base, would bring a strongly pro-EU flavour to the campaign. His main challenge may be to differentiate his and his party’s politics from those of Merkel.