A charismatic opposition candidate looks set to make this year's German election a close contest. But can Angela Merkel's party hold on to power, starting today in Saarland? Max Liu takes a look at the betting.
"Germans will vote nationally on September 24 and, while Merkel is the [1.91] favourite to continue as Chancellor, the Social Democrats (SPD) are looking stronger than they have for several years."
This spring the eyes of European politics punters are all on France's presidential election. But France isn't the only leading EU nation where there's a general election this year and, just across the border with Germany, there's a vote on Sunday (March 26) in the state of Saarland that's something of a litmus test for autumn's German national election.
Amid all the talk of Monsieur Macron and Madame Le Pen, you might have not realised that, in September, Angela Merkel will bid to win a fourth term as German chancellor. Germans will vote nationally on September 24 and, while Merkel is the [1.91] favourite to continue as Chancellor, the Social Democrats (SPD) are looking stronger than they have for several years.
The centre-left SPD are the junior partners in Germany's "grand coalition" government with Merkel's centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU). Under their charismatic new leader, Martin Schulz, the SPD believe they can defeat the CDU and bring to an end the reign of the woman who's dubbed "The Queen of Europe."
Is Merkel unbeatable?
Merkel has been Chancellor since 2005 which is remarkable when you consider that, at the time, Tony Blair, George W Bush and Jacques Chirac were all in charge in their respective countries. She's regarded as the Queen of Europe for the prominent role she plays in the European Union, especially as its representative when it comes to dealing with the Trump administration in Washington.
Until a couple of years ago Merkel, who's credited with being responsible for years of sustained German prosperity, looked unassailable as Chancellor. But since 2015 she's faced criticism for opening German borders to refugees from Syria, Libya and other conflict zones in the Middle East.
Merkel's opponents argue that she was wrong to let one million asylum seekers enter Germany and far right groups, such as the Alternative for Germany party, have tried to play on voters' fears and make populist appeals in the style of Ukip in the UK and Le Pen's National Front in France.
But the real threat to Merkel is Schulz who's [2.66] to be next Chancellor. Since he became leader of the SPD in January they've enjoyed a poll bounce (this week, the party polled 31% nationally - just three points behind the CDU - having languished in the low twenties for most of last year) and his plan-speaking style and social justice platform have been a hit with voters.
Schulz argues that, while Merkel has delivered prosperity and made German competitive abroad, the country's wealth is unevenly distributed and the gap between rich and poor at home is widening at an alarming rate.
Why Saarland matters
Saarland is a small state, with around one million inhabitants, but it's a German bellwether and the SPD are buoyed by polls which indicate their candidate, Anke Rehlinger, can run close the CDU's popular state premier Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Bettors think the CDU will prevail, and make them [1.23] favourites, with the SPD [2.74].
A close contest in Saarland would keep the national momentum with Schulz, especially as he has six months to build on the early success of his campaign. Commentators are already talking about "the Schulz effect." Of course, there's plenty of time for him to make mistakes and it remains to be seen if his outspoken style will start to wear thin with the public and prompt voters to stick with the trusted Merkel.
For now, there's no doubt that Schulz has injected intrigue into a national election that, until fairly recently, appeared to be a foregone conclusion.