German Social Democrats struggle to exploit Merkel weakness
Germany's Social Democrats are struggling at a party congress this week to emerge from Angela Merkel's shadow, where they've languished for a decade and been unable to exploit her current weakness in the polls.
Chancellor Merkel's junior partners in her left-right "grand coalition" government have long been stuck in the doldrums, currently tallying only about 24 percent support among voters.
The country's second-strongest party trails Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) by 15 points even as the migration crisis has eroded her support, particularly among her own rank-and-file.
The embattled leader, Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a dynamic public speaker but little-loved among Social Democrats, has been blamed for the stagnation of the venerable party, now in its 150th year.
His critics also complain that he has failed to snatch issues back from the master tactician Merkel, often credited with occupying the middle ground in German politics.
Nevertheless, with no challenger in sight, Gabriel was on Friday reelected with 74.3 percent of the vote, down from the 83.6 percent he obtained at the party's last polls in 2013.
- 'That's enough' -
In an address to around 600 delegates meeting in Berlin on Friday, Gabriel hit out at Merkel's pro-austerity policies during the eurozone debt crisis for the gains of France's far-right National Front.
"I have always warned Merkel against trying to impose austerity on France," he said, ahead of his reelection.
"Without it, (FN leader Marine) Le Pen would not have made it that far," he said.
But observers noted that the debt turmoil had also presented challenges for the SPD.
While Merkel backed a fresh bailout for Greece under strict conditions over the summer, Gabriel had appeared to struggle to find a firm position.
In the end, Gabriel, "who is targeting the centrist electorate", opted not to challenge the pro-austerity line favoured by the chancellor "knowing that most Germans are very sceptical when it comes to Greece", political scientist Oskar Niedermayer said.
The most dramatic example of how Merkel has poached key issues has been in the refugee crisis -- the defining issue of German politics this year.
By embracing an open-doors policy for Syrians fleeing war and terror, Merkel has won over many voters from the traditional left who might never have considered voting CDU.
Recognising his weak support in the party, Gabriel announced in October that he was willing to hold a party referendum to decide who will lead the SPD into the 2017 general election.
Merkel, who is holding her own party congress from Monday, is expected to decide next year whether she will stand for a fourth term at the helm of Europe's top economic power.
In the run-up to the party congress, SPD vice president Ralf Stegner insisted that the mighty Merkel could be defeated: "12 years at the chancellery: that's enough!"
SPD supporter Clara Klapprodt, 19, admitted she had little confidence her party could win the 2017 general election.
"To do that, we would need a real vision capable of winning people over," she told AFP at the congress which opened Thursday.
However another SPD supporter, Wilhelm Drabke, said he was keeping hope alive but that it would take another candidate, popular Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to topple Merkel.
Steinmeier already took on Merkel once, in 2009, leading the party to its worst showing since 1949 with just 23 percent of the vote. It remains unclear whether he would be willing to risk reliving the experience.
© 2015 AFP