BERLIN — Germany’s second-largest party has sought to inject new life into its election hopes with a surprise move to select a combative former E.U. official to challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But the bid by the Social Democratic Party to unseat Merkel in September does not appear to play on the populist and anti-immigrant sentiments rocking the political systems in places such as France.
Both the Social Democrats and Merkel’s Christian Democrats strongly favor keeping together the European Union amid internal strains from Britain’s decision to leave and the rise of right-wing groups questioning E.U. powers. The new Social Democrats leader, former E.U. Parliament president Martin Schulz, had backed Merkel’s policies to allow in more than 1 million migrants since 2015, including many from war-battered nations such as Syria and Iraq. Schulz is also a fervent backer of the European Union.
The Social Democrat’s reshuffle highlights its challenge to carve out a different identity from Merkel’s political base. Schulz replaces the deputy chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, who had been widely seen as the most likely challenger in Sept. 24 parliamentary elections.
At a joint news conference Tuesday in Berlin, Gabriel said he was convinced that Schulz had the “best chances,” adding, “I’m sure he’s the right one.”
Schulz, accepting the nomination, said he was “deeply moved.”
Members of the Christian Democratic Party appeared to take the unexpected news calmly. “Neither are we going to panic now, nor fall into depression,” party deputy chairman Thomas Strobl told the DPA news agency.
Jürgen Falter, a political science professor at the University of Mainz, said he did not view Schulz as a serious threat to Merkel and her center-right party. Merkel’s party currently heads the polls with 37 percent; 21 percent of voters support the Social Democrats.
But Falter agreed with the Social Democrats’ assessment that Schulz is a better candidate than Gabriel to try to cut into Merkel’s lead. “He comes across as more human, more authentic, less distant than Gabriel,” he said.
Schulz, who served as E.U. Parliament president for four years until his term ended this month, has spoken openly about his past personal life, including periods of unemployment and alcohol abuse.
He has a reputation of not mincing his words, and observers expect him to lead a tough-minded campaign.
While Schulz has advocated for a tightknit and more democratic Europe, his domestic policy agenda is unclear. At Tuesday’s news conference, he remained vague. “We want the hardworking people in this country, who stick to the rules, to live safely and well here in Germany,” he said.
Falter said that Schulz is unlikely to strongly oppose Merkel on one of the most contentious political issues in Germany: how to deal with the large influx of asylum seekers. One effort sought to spread the migrant burden across the 28-nation European Union.
“He supported Merkel’s refugee policy on an E.U. level and failed due to a lack of support of the quotas among the member states,” Falter said.
Green Party lawmaker Jürgen Trittin weighed in on the announcement, telling reporters: “As a response to [new U.S. President] Trump, we must keep Europe together. And Martin Schulz is not the worst candidate for that.”
Falter suggested the “visibility and prestige” of Schulz’s former position as president of the E.U. Parliament is likely to help Schulz. He was among the E.U. officials who accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the European Union in 2012.
“It will only harm him with a minority of E.U. skeptics,” he said.