Will Reviving Germany’s Social Democrats Be Enough to Unseat Merkel?
By Alexander Saeedy
With its new leader Martin Schulz, Germany’s center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has had a comeback, but it is unclear whether the boost will be enough to unseat Chancellor Angela Merkel in the federal elections in September. According to the most recent German polls, the SPD nudged ahead of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) by one percentage point after Schulz was elected to lead at a special party congress on March 19. But on Sunday, voters in Saarland, a small and typically CDU-leaning state in southwestern Germany, seemed not to take heed of the “Schulz surge” as they cast their ballots in regional elections.
Merkel’s CDU came in first place with around 40 percent of the vote, while the SPD trailed in second place with just over 29 percent. Although Saarland generally leans conservative, it represents one of the many German heartlands Schulz and the SPD will need to win over if he is to become chancellor this September. Sunday’s results in Saarland were certainly disappointing for the SPD, but the elections were admittedly very, very close. Had the German environmentalist Green Party taken more than five percent of the vote in Saarland—they came in at four percent—the SPD’s combined forces with far-left Die Linke and the Greens would have given them a so-called red-red-green majority in Saarland, which is precisely the same configuration that Schulz intends to build in the German Bundestag this September.
DE-SCHRÖDERING THE SPD
Since the 1990s, the SPD has been accused of abandoning its working-class roots. The party’s most recent chancellor, Gerhard Schröder (who is a very close friend of Vladimir Putin), infamously betrayed the party’s socialist ideology in 2003 with his “Agenda 2010,” a radical set of reforms that cut unemployment benefits and effectively pushed down the minimum wage. Since then, Merkel’s conservative wing has continued to laud Agenda 2010 as a “competitive” economic policy for Germany, while the SPD’s hold within the nation’s parliament has shrunk to a fraction of its former size.
SPD leaders and supporters alike consider Schulz to be the antidote to the so-called Schröder defect. Much of the SPD’s newfound popularity can be attributed to the meteoric rise of Schulz. A humble bookshop owner from Aachen, he served as a local politician for the SPD in the 1980s before joining the European Parliament in Brussels, where he eventually became president in 2012. After stepping down from that position, he was unofficially named the party’s candidate for chancellor in January, and ever since, the SPD’s support has been on the rise, particularly among younger voters.
At the SPD’s special congress near Berlin’s Treptower Park last week, Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and the former governor of the German state of Lower Saxony, acknowledged Schulz’s contribution to the party’s recent boost in the polls. Speaking to a crowd of over 3,000 SPD members, he openly admitted that the party had struggled to win votes over the last ten years but that “there [was] no need for melancholy. The SPD has a new name, and it’s Martin Schulz.”
But Schulz remains a relatively unknown figure inside German national politics and lacks the proper list of credentials that usually qualifies candidates for the top spot in German politics. Merkel, for example, holds a Doctorate in Physics and served as a Member of the German Bundestag for 15 years before becoming chancellor. Schulz, for his part, never attended university, and his political experience is limited to a controversial stint as a mayor of a small German town and his tenure in the European Parliament in Brussels, a body that has long suffered from accusations of non-transparency and disconnectedness with voters.
But in an era where connection to politics as usual is its own kiss of the death, the SPD may be right in assuming that Schulz is the “right man for the right time.” He is a welcome break from the typically uninspiring nature of the party’s leadership and holds a deeply pro-European stance that is likely to please Germans on the left. Schulz is championing a vision of a “fair Germany” that capitalizes on its past ten years of economic success by rewarding those who have seen their social protections rolled back in the name of “competitiveness.” But the big question is: will Germans buy into his vision as well?
THE SCHULZ SURGE
Known on social media as the #SchulzSurge, Schulz has catalyzed support for his once ailing party, largely thanks to his pro-European stance and progressiveness on wage equality and social welfare policies.
“With his biography—he has no final secondary-school examinations and had some problems with alcohol during his youth—his career embodies the social democratic promise of social rise,” Michael Roth, Germany’s State Minister for European Affairs told me, “His authenticity, his credibility, his admirable rhetorical skills, and his vast experience as a politician are very impressive for all of us.”
Among young Germans, there is no better proof of Schulz’s popularity than the highly active subreddit dedicated to him, where he has earned the title of “Gottkanzler” (God-Chancellor) among his most devoted followers. Schulz took the time to personally show his gratitude for this community in a January YouTube video, in which he thanked them for their “tremendous support” and for “unleashing a wave that is naturally of great help to me.”
“Schulz made the impossible possible,” says Tara Hadviger, chair of Jusos Brussels, a Europe-wide grouping for young supporters of Germany’s SPD, and a member of the Board of Jusos Aachen, Schulz’s home city in Germany. “Young people feel that we actually have a chance of winning against the CDU and Merkel. Thanks to him, the SPD has recently gained more than 13,000 new members, many of whom are young people who believe in his straightforward style as a politician and his support for the EU. He needs to make sure that this momentum keeps on going until the September elections.”
Schulz and the SPD are hoping to achieve an “Obama” effect for the German center-left in this year’s elections, using the language of social justice and optimism to win young voters who have traditionally seen the SPD as an aged political party when compared with left-leaning counterparts like the German Greens or Die Linke, which was forged from the ashes of East Germany’s former Communist Party, the SED.
Although Schulz will only unveil his full vision for an SPD-led chancellery in June, he offered party members a first glance into his platform at Sunday’s congress in an hour-long address. The theme of the congress was “Zeit für mehr Gerechtigkeit”—“time for more fairness”—and reflects his notion of an SPD better focused on workers’ rights and social justice.
“The well-being of every man, every woman, and every child should stand at the center of our political project,” Schulz said at the congress. “If we invest in our future and in the skills of our workers, people will regain faith in our society.”
He also called Merkel’s cuts to social programs “economically unwise and socially divisive,” spoke in favor of free public education, and called the continued gender pay gap “totally unreasonable.” Schulz defended the recent introduction of a minimum wage (which was not legally mandated in Germany until 2015) and called for an extended period of benefits for the unemployed, a move that CDU leaders have said would “damage the success” of Germany’s historically low unemployment rate, which at 5.9 percent as of February 2017, has touched a 27-year record low.
Jan Techau, Director of the Richard C. Holbrook Forum for Diplomacy at the American Academy of Berlin and former Director of Carnegie Europe, said that Schulz’s rebranding of German social democracy was a smart attempt to defend economic liberalism while acknowledging that there were “winners and losers” in economic globalisation.
“Schulz’s predecessors didn’t have a modern interpretation of German social democracy for the global economy and didn’t see how the problems of globalization could be used to their benefit, in order to advocate for those who suffer the most from them,” he said.
“It’s slightly ironic that he’s pushing this agenda in a country where the number of losers from globalization isn’t tremendously high and where poverty is low. But there’s a nagging feeling that something’s gone wrong in the German economy, which puts the SPD in the position for some interesting rejuvenation.”
FACING OFF AGAINST THE IRON CHANCELLOR
If Schulz takes over the top seat in German politics this autumn, he’ll have more on his hands than a boilerplate domestic agenda anchored in workers’ rights. He’ll also be sharing de factocontrol of the EU, which stands at an existential crossroads and is grappling with the Gordian knots of Brexit, immigration, an increasingly bellicose and authoritarian Turkey, and the future of the EU itself.
“There are for sure no easy solutions to complex tasks such as completing the European Monetary Union and Brexit,” said Roth. “But as the former President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz understands the complexity of European politics. Importantly, during his final years in Brussels, he learned that no single European country can bring about solutions on his own.”
But some wonder whether Schulz’s experience in Brussels—and lack of experience in German politics—means that he would prove an amateur chancellor.
“Schulz has no real executive experience besides his tenure as an EU lawmaker in the European Parliament, arguably the most flawed institution inside of Brussels, where it’s the norm to take positions that are far away from political reality,” said Techau. “Reality doesn’t bite you there. As Chancellor, Schulz will have to learn that what you say and what you do cannot be far out of line from each other.”
The SPD should also be keen to follow the warnings from recent elections in the Netherlands that the status quofor Europe’s center-left is simply unsustainable. There, far-right populists were defeated in recent elections by Mark Rutte’s center-right VVD, or the People’s Party of Freedom of Democracy, while the Dutch Labor Party (Partij van de Arbeid)—the Dutch sister to the SPD—suffered its worst defeat in recent history, a rumored casualty of a toxic association with neoliberalism and European austerity.
How Schulz will attempt to bridge the historically toxic contradictions of the modern center-left is yet unclear for the German SPD. But he seems prepared to circumvent the method of his British counterpart Jeremy Corbyn, whose redefinition of the British Labour Party has attempted to revitalize the party through a hard-left return to socialism while silently maligning the European Union and its support for economic liberalization.
“Europe lies directly in the best interests of Germany,” Schulz intoned at the SPD congress. “The EU was created alongside the spirit of our unified Germany, and we must fight against those who will try to destroy this project.”
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, meaning that Schulz will need to turn his social media buzz into votes. Although the SPD has polled well through the beginning of 2017, he has yet to begin a full-fledged campaign against Merkel, who has successfully defeated Schulz’s party in three separate elections, while veering her party more to the left on social policy. This means it may prove hard for Schulz’s progressive message to win defectors from the political centre.
But his prospects to build a coalition with the German Greens and hard-left Die Linke nonetheless appear strong. And as long as Schulz can continue to enchant the hearts and minds of the German people, Merkel’s 12-year tenure over Europe’s most powerful nation during some of the continent’s most troubled days may very well be coming to an end.
“The new SPD chief is a magician,” wrote Christian Stenzel, an editor at Bild, Germany’s most-read newspaper, on the night of Schulz’s nomination. “He’s successfully made his long years in the Eurocrat-Spaceship of Brussels disappear while ensuring his supporters’ attention with the promise of free public education.” But, Stenzel warned, Schulz’s magic may prove ineffective against the chancellor, whose steeliness has sometimes earned her the title of “die eiserne Kanzlerin”—“the iron chancellor,” a title historically used to refer to Otto van Bismarck, and which is usually employed to praise Merkel’s “tough but fair” approach to international politics.
“Schulz ought to keep a good rabbit in his top hat until the elections,” she wrote, “since it will prove difficult to witch Angela Merkel out of the chancellorship.”
This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.