T his week’s edition of Stern, the German magazine, shows Chancellor Angela Merkel pricking a balloon levitating with the head of Martin Schulz, leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), stuck inside. “Peng!” says the headline. “How the chancellor is puncturing the SPD dream.”
Two months ago Ms. Merkel’s chances of securing a fourth term in September’s federal election seemed to be dimming. Taking over as leader from Sigmar Gabriel, Mr. Schulz had injected vim into the long-languishing SPD with his energy, message of social justice and popular touch (likened by critics to Donald Trump’s).
Three state elections gave the party a chance to show its surge in the polls was built on something substantive. Instead, the foundations have turned out to be shaky. On March 26, Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) reaffirmed its dominance in Saarland; on May 7, it extended its lead in Schleswig Holstein; and this week it overtook the SPD in North Rhine-Westphalia, the country’s biggest state (and Mr. Schulz’s home) with 18 million inhabitants.
“This is a veritable disaster for the party that has controlled the country’s industrial heartland for almost half a century,” said Carsten Nickel, a German researcher at Teneo Intelligence. “Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats continued their unprecedented momentum and pulled another strong result. Merkel’s prospects for a fourth term in the chancellery remain stellar.”
In North Rhine-Westphalia the CDU attacked the SPD’s record in regional government, focusing on security, transport and education. But the result reflects a nationwide trend. In early March the gap between the two main parties, which currently rule in a grand coalition, had narrowed to just 0.8 points, according to an average of federal polls by Pollytix, a research firm. Now the CDU is more than nine points ahead. Just as worrying for Mr. Schulz, polls asking about a hypothetical head-to-head with Ms. Merkel suggest voters like him less the more they get to know him.
While Mr. Schulz responded to the defeat this week, changing tack by taking a hard line on security, Ms. Merkel was busy meeting the new French president, Emmanuel Macron, to discuss the future of Europe. Alongside her latest French partner, the chancellor appeared re-energised by the challenge of stabilising the EU as the UK heads towards the exit and US President Donald Trump casts doubt on his commitment to NATO.