What now for Merkel’s chief rival, Schulz? He’ll have some big decisions to make | Daniela Schüller

Chancellor Angela Merkel won Sunday’s election in Germany, but won’t be getting her fourth term as she had hoped. That leaves a succession of complex cabinet-selection dilemmas for her leading rival, Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz.

The SPD did surprisingly well in Sunday’s election, winning 33.5% of the vote with the possibility of securing 34 seats in the Bundestag. However, many of the votes the SPD received were from disaffected support of the far-right Alternative for Germany, which won 12.6% of the vote.

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Jürgen Rüttgers, deputy chairman of the Social Democrats, told Die Welt: “The key issue is now which direction the Social Democrats should take.”

A few months ago a reunion between the Social Democrats and the Free Democrats was unimaginable. However, following the election, Schulz campaigned vigorously for the “Jamaica” coalition between the SPD, the Greens and the liberal FDP (small Free Democrats). It might have resulted in something new for Germany. But now with Merkel’s Christian Democrats ahead, Schulz can ill afford to repeat his flirtation with the far-right.

Not only was Sunday’s election a turning point in Germany’s new political map, but it also threw a spotlight on Schulz’s contradictions.

Throughout the campaign, he positioned himself as a competent centre-left leader and a pragmatic labour minister. But more than anything else, he liked to portray himself as the “man of the people”. As at the end of 2017, he wants to be considered as a social democrat.

Based on the election results, Schulz will probably appoint the SPD’s main candidate for the chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, as his foreign minister, while a longtime SPD member of the Bundestag from the eastern state of Thuringia, Heiko Maas, will become German minister for economy, employment and labour. The other ministry is yet to be decided on. For many years it was a dormant portfolio that was handed over only to the SPD, since the last Merkel-led coalition (2009-2013) disbanded the Social Democratic parliamentary party.

The person who gets appointed to the finance ministry is less certain, since the CDU does not officially seek to get it. It will be a significant choice, because this would have the potential to go beyond economic policy. Germany’s finance minister has traditionally played a key role in European politics.

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Germany’s role in the eurozone has always been a very sensitive issue for the CDU and the SPD.

The situation will be decided by Merkel, who has strengthened her relationship with France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, recently. For two years, Germany has been systematically resisting reforms and budget discipline in the eurozone. Berlin’s position is the clear exception among other EU countries, including Italy, which is struggling to cope with its public debt. Germany’s insistence on structural reforms, fiscal prudence and the European Stability Mechanism being the main instrument for handling a financial crisis should be respected by the new German government, Macron’s side hopes.

The SPD will face many challenges during its next term, but they will play an important role in negotiations on the next German government.

• Daniela Schüller is a philosopher at the University of Bonn

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