Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Challenger (2/17)     Print Email

By Konstantin Veit, Washington DC

On January 29, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) nominated the former President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz to be the party’s leader for German legislative elections in September. Since then, the political landscape in Germany has shifted considerably and Chancellor Angela Merkel fourth term no longer seems inevitable.

Schulz’ nomination followed Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel’s decision to relinquish the party chair and waive his prerogative to run as the SPD’s top candidate. Gabriel acknowledged that his party would have better chances of success in the election with the clearly more popular Schulz as head of party. His calculus has proven right so far: According to a poll published on February 2 by infratest dimap which regularly conducts polls for the public broadcaster ARD, Merkel’s Christian Democrats in fact still lead with 34 percent, but the SPD essentially caught up to 28 percent which is an 8 percent gain compared to the numbers before Schulz’ nomination. A new Insa survey published by Die Welt on February 14, shows the SPD even leading the Chancellor’s coalition parties by 31 percent to 30 percent.

The German elections are likely to be dominated by issues of domestic security, protection against terrorist attacks and the handling of the continuous inflow of refugees, even though the numbers have drastically reduced in 2016 -- most Germans (57 percent) now think the country can cope with the refugee influx. However, according to the same survey, 51 percent of the people polled see more measures required to protect the country against terrorism (whereas 43 percent do not) and 67 percent are in favor of easing the deportation of criminal refugees).

Another decisive factor in the race for Chancellor Merkel’s office seems to be the “voters’ fatigue with her”, as Politico puts it. Is there an atmosphere of change in Germany now, which Schulz can capitalize on? It is a crucial part of Schulz’ appeal that he is a fresh face in German politics. None of the other parties have a similar candidate, least of all the Christian Democrats who put forward Merkel for a fourth legislative term, as expected. Inherent in Merkel’s candidacy is the CDU’s appeal for stability, continuity and reliability.

However, is ‘more of the same’ the right message to win elections in 2017? The current poll numbers, the excitement generated by Schulz’ nomination and the more than 4600 new party members for the Social Democrats since Schulz’ nomination seem to indicate the opposite. In some German states, the party offices ran out of party books for new members. In Hamburg, people who wanted to attend an appearance of Schulz had to be turned away at the doors because there wasn’t enough room.

At the heart of Schulz’ appeal is his personal biography. A high school dropout and former alcoholic, he often speaks about getting a second chance, becoming a bookseller and in 1987 being finally elected mayor of a small town in North Rhine-Westphalia, a social democratic stronghold for decades. It is this narrative, which gives him credibility as someone who understands the day-to-day worries of working people, and which insulates him from the anti-establishment mood of some parts of the German electorate. Instead, Schulz portrays himself as in touch with the people.[1] Besides his personal story, Schulz is also an unreconstructed European, gaining most of his political experience in Brussels. As a result, he is leading a campaign that stresses a candidate who cares about the worries of ‘the man in the street’ and is strongly pro-European.

However, until now Schulz lacks a clear election manifesto. His recent speeches are full of social democratic priorities of course (such as affordable living space, fair wages for employees) and the recurrent Schulz bio narrative. If he wants to live up to the expectations he is driving, Schulz must become more precise soon. It is no easy task to craft a manifesto which distinguishes the SPD clearly from Merkel’s center-right CDU, but which, at the same time, does not frighten off centrist voters. That is the challenge the SPD has to respond to in the coming months -- ‘Bringing back social justice’ will not suffice anymore, especially in times of relatively widespread prosperity: the above-mentioned infratest poll states that 79 percent of Germans entitled to vote assess their current economic situation as good or very good. Moreover, domestic security, which is a traditional CDU topic, currently ranges clearly higher than social inequality on the German political agenda. “If security remains the battleground of the election, Mr Schulz will struggle to score points against Mrs Merkel” says The Economist.

Another look at the polls shows that half the people asked who should lead the next government, voted for the SPD, compared to 39 percent in support of the CDU. Besides, if Germany had direct elections of the Chancellor, Schulz would gain half of the votes, Merkel only 34 percent. The overall direction is clear: Schulz has given the SPD clearly higher poll numbers than the nominations of Steinbrück in 2012 or president-elect Steinmeier in 2008 did. First analyses show that Schulz’ newness and freshness attracts not only SPD sympathizers who were put off by the unpopular Gabriel or disappointed by recent SPD policy until now, but he also draws swing voters both from the bourgeois center and the green-left camp.[2]

Schulz also has more time than Merkel’s former challengers Steinbrück and Steinmeier. He resigned from the Presidency of the European Parliament and gave up his seat as MEP. He is a newcomer in German national politics who currently neither holds a position as federal minister nor as Member of the Bundestag. Instead, Schulz can devote his full vigor to the election campaign. This allows him to undertake a great number of trips to local groups and state associations of the SPD throughout the next months, where he can also be helpful as a campaigner in those states which have regional elections coming up before national elections on September 24. Furthermore, not being part of the current Merkel administration allows Schulz more freedom to attack Merkel than now foreign minister Gabriel in his role as vice-chancellor and government partner can.

However, it is debatable whether Schulz’ opportunity to travel extensively throughout the country also poses a risk to his campaign, since more publicity always means more room for lapses, which usually are capitalized on mercilessly by the media and overshadow previous campaign successes. The Social Democrats well remember how their 2013 top candidate Steinbrück suffered from saying that he would not buy a Pinot Grigio for 5 euros.

Schulz must be careful not to peak to early, and some experienced campaign managers are recommending that a full strategy and platform needs to be developed before going full-speed ahead. With more than seven months to go until the election, Schulz will need to sustain his early momentum, nurture the new energy within the Social Democratic party, while keeping single minded focus on the ultimate prize.

Konstantin Veit is an editorial assistant at the European Institute

[1]Klask, Fabian and Matthias Krupa: Wie viel Schulz ertraegt das Land? DIE ZEIT 06/2017, p. 5.