J ust three weeks ago Angela Merkel appeared to be marching almost unchallenged towards a third term as German chancellor in September’s federal election. Though weakened by the refugee crisis and a series of poor regional results, she had been anointed leader of the free world by Barack Obama as he left office. Her coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), were suffering a particularly acute case of the illness afflicting Europe’s centre left.
Then Sigmar Gabriel, Ms. Merkel’s deputy, stood down as SPD leader, flipping the race on its head. Under his successor, Martin Schulz, support for the party has surged. Based on current polls, he is more popular than the chancellor and might be able to oust her by forming a coalition with the Greens and Die Linke, a far-left party. ‘Is Germany tired of Merkel?’ best-selling tabloid Bild asked last week. Adding to the sense of momentum, MPs elected Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a former SPD foreign minister, as president on Sunday.
Fresh from a stint as president of the European Parliament, Mr. Schulz is relatively unknown in Germany, allowing him to tap into the yearning for outsiders that has upended Western politics. His personal story helps. Leaving school without qualifications, he wanted to be a professional footballer before an injury ended his fledgling career. He struggled with alcoholism but at 31 was elected mayor of Würselen in North Rhine-Westphalia.
“I'm not a populist,” he told news magazine Der Spiegel. “But I try to present complicated issues in such a way that people know where I stand.”
Yet Mr. Schulz’s honeymoon may already be coming to an end. The latest poll by Forsa suggests his popularity has been checked. “In order to succeed Chancellor Merkel, Schulz must now present a convincing programme,” said Manfred Güllner, head of the research institute. Ms. Merkel’s allies have come out swinging: “If Schulz calls upon his supporters to chant ‘make Europe great again’ that’s almost literally [like] Trump,” Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble told Spiegel.
On top of that, a penchant for private jets and allegations about cronyism during his five years as Parliament president (now the subject of an official inquiry) may dent his image as a man of the people. Don’t rule out another four years of Ms. Merkel just yet.