Recently, on a miserably cold morning in Berlin, I visited the headquarters of the Young Socialists, the youth movement of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD). With so much attention now homing in on Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament who returned to Germany to run against Chancellor Angela Merkel, it was time to find out what was making him so popular, so quickly.
Just one month into his new job, support for the Social Democrats has soared. One poll shows Schulz’s party at 31 percent, pulling to within 2 percent of its rival. Other polls show the parties neck-and-neck, at 32 percent. One thing is clear: Schulz has taken his party out of the doldrums.
There is even talk that Schulz, 61, might be able to dethrone Merkel, 62, in federal elections scheduled for September. Schulz, who once dreamed of a career as a soccer player, could become chancellor of a left-wing government consisting of the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left, the former communist party of East Germany.
Were that to happen, it would end the political career of the woman who is currently Europe’s most important leader, who has kept the European Union together over the euro crisis, who kept it united behind anti-Russia sanctions and who provided backbone and moral authority in giving safety to more than 1 million refugees from Syria and Iraq.
Young Socialist volunteers have no problems praising Merkel’s policies towards the refugees or Russia. “But Schulz is different,” Nicole Kiendl, 22, said. The public policy and governance student said Schulz was “full of energy. He’s a new face.”
A new face? That may seem strange. At the age of 19, Schulz joined the SPD in 1974, entered local politics and was elected to the European Parliament in 1994, where he remained until this year. Yet these deputies are largely unknown in their home country.
Until now. Back home in Germany, Schulz has revealed himself as energetic, ubiquitous and a fast talker, a politician with a common touch. His listeners like that he’s open about his past, admitting how he kicked alcoholism, and never went to university. (He has also openly criticized President Trump, which doesn’t hurt, since many Germans look askance at the U.S. president’s Euroskepticism).
Kiendl added that Young Socialist members were tired of seeing their party play second fiddle to Merkel during her first stint in office from 2005 to 2009 and again from 2013 to 2017. “Merkel takes all the credit for everything,” she says.
Benny Koester, 28, another Young Socialist volunteer, chipped in. “What’s attractive about Schulz is that he speaks out for Europe, which is so important for our generation. He also speaks out openly against populism and extremism.” Merkel does the same — just not with the same force as Schulz, who is a fiery orator.
Seasoned Social Democratic politicians are just as energized. “Something is changing in the German political landscape,” Niels Annen, the party’s foreign affairs spokesman in the German Parliament said. “There is now going to be a really competitive race in September.”
And the changes don’t stop there, according to Annen. Germany, he said, is bucking the European trend. “The election of Trump and the decision by the British to leave the E.U. has boosted populists and anti-E.U. movements in many countries in Europe. But not here in Germany. Support for Schulz has risen as support for the far left and the far-right Alternative for Germany is falling,” Annen explained. But then he added an afterthought: “We can’t underestimate Merkel.”
He’s right to be wary. Merkel is a consummate politician. Since becoming leader of the Christian Democrats in 2000, she has seen off all potential challengers from within her party. Her loyal supporters say she is not unnerved by Schulz. “There’s no need for panic,” said Elmar Brok, a leading Christian Democrat and member of the European Parliament. “Merkel just has to communicate her policies.”
Other Christian Democrats, especially those in Merkel’s entourage, are more cautious. They have no illusions about the Schulz phenomenon. They say it’s the difference in style that sets the two candidates apart. “Merkel does things her way, slowly,” an aide who requested anonymity said. “This is her scientific background. She bides her time. She is a steady pair of hands. She is not a great communicator. She is not going to change at this stage or play any populist card to seek reelection,” he added.
Yet during several town hall meetings across the country, Merkel has shown she can reach out to those skeptical and critical of her open-door policy toward the refugees. During the recent Munich Security Conference, hours before she was due to speak, Merkel tore up her staff-approved speech and instead read from her own hand-written text, even extemporizing, especially about democracy, values and a free press. “She has her own way of doing things,” Brok added.
Despite his high ratings, its not going to be a shoo-in for Schulz. Splits are emerging in his party.
Sigmar Gabriel, the new foreign minister who wants the Russian sanctions lifted, has begun appealing to the pacifist wing of the party. At the Munich Security Conference, he clashed with the Christian Democrat German defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, who promised to increase defense spending and provide more support to NATO. “We must not allow ourselves to be drawn blindly into an arms race,” Gabriel responded. Schulz, by contrast, has no illusions about Russia or why Europe needs to spend more its defense and security.
On social issues, however, he has proposed rolling back some of the unpopular labor market reforms the former Social Democrat chancellor Gerhard Schroder introduced in 2004 — only to be roundly defeated a year later. Schulz now is determined to win back those by prolonging unemployment benefits, reducing the number of short-term contracts and capping salaries. He wants the party to rediscover its roots; to win over disaffected left-wing voters.
When Merkel announced she was going to run again, she conceded that it would be a tough campaign. She was referring to potential Russian interference and hacking. The entry of Schultz has added another challenge. “Yes, but just remember that those who make great leaps in the polls tend to lose in the end.” Brok said. “Don’t write off Merkel.”
Judy Dempsey is the author of the book Das Phänomen Merkel (Körber-Stiftung, 2013). She also edits the Carnegie Endowment’s Strategic Europe blog.