Is the honeymoon over, Herr Schulz?

Our friends at dicomm advisors, a Berlin-based political consultancy, think-tank and communications agency, assess the upcoming German election.

Within the last few weeks, the SPD candidate for German Chancellor, Martin Schulz, has seen his stock rise in Germany. However, this “Schulz effect”, which has brought high approval ratings to the SPD, now seems to have evaporated. The current polls in Germany (conducted by InfratestDimap) show the CDU/CSU and Chancellor Merkel back well ahead of the SPD and their new chairman Schulz. If the Germans could elect their chancellor by direct ballot, 46% would vote for Merkel (+10) and 40% for Schulz (-5), while in March the numbers were 36% for Merkel versus 45% for Schulz.

Looking at the sources of support, we see that Schulz is backed by supporters of his own party, as well as surprisingly by proponents of the right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the left-wing Linkspartei. Merkel on the other hand can rely on the support of CDU/CSU voters and the supporters of the liberal democratic Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP) and the Greens.

What is interesting is the timeline of the developments since the new year:

  • On January 25, 2017 Merkel and Schulz were both on the same level with 41% in the direct ballot survey, just one day after Sigmar Gabriel in a surprise move had announced his resignation as the party chairman, at the same time suggesting Martin Schulz as the SPD candidate for Chancellor.
  • On February 2, 2017 (shortly after the SPD party executive had nominated Schulz as candidate for Chancellor), 50% of the Germans said they would vote for Schulz and only 34% for Angela Merkel.
  • On March 24, 2017 After Schulz had just been elected the new party chairman and candidate for Chancellor with 100% of the votes at the SPD party convention, he was clearly ahead of Merkel who was polling only 36% to his 45%.
  • Now, in April, a shift has taken place.

The weakening of the “Schulz effect” is most apparent in polling questions relating to who is the most popular politician in Germany. He has an approval rating of 48%, whereas Angela Merkel is on 62% – her best rating since the beginning of the refugee crisis in the summer of 2015!  In direct comparison with each other, Merkel is deemed to be far more competent (commanding a 36-point lead) and more believable (21-point lead). However, Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU), the Finance Minister, has the highest approval rating of 68% – making him the most popular national politician.

It’s not just on the question of the Chancellor, the CDU/CSU also lead the other parties in the so called “Sunday question” (i.e. Who would you vote for if a federal election were to take place next Sunday?): The CDU/CSU poll 34% (+2), the SPD 31% (no change), the AfD reached 11%, followed by the Greens with 8%, the Linkspartei with 7%, the FDP with 6% and more than 30% undecided voters.

With those numbers – and for the first time since the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949 – the German Bundestag would be made of six parliamentary groups:

A “civil center” capable of forming coalitions and consisting of the Green Party, the SPD, FDP, and the CDU/CSU and the right-wing and left-wing populist parties, the AfD and the Linkspartei scooping up to 20% of the vote.

As it is coalitions which traditionally govern Germany, the question of the most popular coalition model is ultimately more decisive in choosing a Chancellor than the most popular top candidates. According to many citizens, the continuation of the current “grand coalition” of the CDU/CSU and the SPD would be the best outcome. Every second person entitled to vote rated such a coalition under the leadership of the CDU/CSU as (very) good for Germany. A SPD-led Grand Coalition finds similar approval. No other conceivable political constellation achieves similarly high levels of consent.

The state elections in Saarland a few weeks ago showed that the real alternative of the SPD to a grand coalition is a “left-wing government” of the SPD, the Green Party and the Left Party. However, this only receives 26% approval nationwide and is rejected by 72% of the electorate. This does not look like a convincing ‘government-in-waiting’ for SPD supporters, especially in view of the fact that 53% (+9) of respondents are very satisfied with the work of the Federal Government.

In addition to supporters of the CDU/CSU, Green Party supporters were especially satisfied (60% agreed), while the biggest rejection comes from supporters of the Linkspartei (62%) and of the AfD (98%). In addition, a swing comparable to the one over the last few months which would benefit the SPD and Martin Schulz, cannot be seen in the most recent polls, especially since the refugee issue – though still being an important issue for the Germans – has fallen by 26 points and stands at 40% right now.

The outcome of the federal elections in September will ultimately depend on whether the Germans are looking for continuity in internationally tumultuous times, or if they have tired of Merkel and are looking for a new direction. On the other hand, the outcome is determined by the coalition question.

Here it will be interesting to observe the jockeying for power by the Liberals and the Greens against the CDU/CSU. While there have still not been any CDU/CSU-Green coalitions at the federal level, many liberals still remember well the CDU/CSU and the FDP coalition of 2009-2013.

Remembered just as well is the punishment inflicted on the FDP at the 2013 federal elections, leading to them falling out of government. There are still those who have bones to pick with Merkel.

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