Less than three months ago, Germany’s social democrats pulled past Merkel’s CDU in the national polls – for the first time since 2006. “Ordinary”, “approachable”, his “finger on the pulse of Germany’s issues in 2017”, Martin Schulz’s unanimous election as candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) for the position of chancellor in the upcoming general election evoked uncharacteristically high spirits within a party that had long seemed resigned to its fate as junior coalition partner to Merkel’s Christian-conservatives. Party members and pundits alike mused over the “Schulzeffekt” propelling the SPD back into power, following two terms as junior partner and one in opposition to Merkel’s twelve year tenure as chancellor.
Yet three regional elections and three losses later, high hopes of finally taking “Mutti”’s place in September’s general election are rapidly fading following the social democrats’ disappointing performance even in their heartland of North Rhine-Westphalia. What hope is left for a revival of the Schulz effect?
A short-lived miracle made in Würselen
“Here I stand, a man from Würselen”. Schulz’s reputation as a pro-European outsider and quintessentially German everyman untarnished by domestic coalition haggling propelled the party to newfound credibility. Schulz knows how to use his humble beginnings, his setbacks (his dream of becoming a professional football player fell through due to an injury, leading him into years of alcohol abuse) and eventual rise from small town mayor to president of the European Parliament to his advantage. Even outside of his own party circles, fellow politicians recognize his level-headed appearance and principled politics. By February 2017, Schulz enjoyed the personal support for the position of chancellor of 50% of German voters, a sixteen-point lead over Merkel.
And yet the initial euphoria has noticeably subsided. Three key regional elections – in the Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein, and most recently in North Rhine-Westphalia – all won by Merkel’s conservatives, have confirmed what sceptics had predicted all along: a whiff of fresh air may well be welcome in German politics but in the end it’s the promise of stability and continuity that matters in uncertain times.
What went wrong?
Twelve years into Merkel’s rule, Schulz appeared to have hit the spot with his direct attacks on her economic record and his own promise of social justice. Below the surface of low unemployment rates and high export levels, key pillars of Merkel’s outward success story, voters’ frustration at stagnating wages and the continuation of austerity measures in the form of high levels of subcontracted and temporary work has been growing.
Though far from a new credo, Schulz’s own working class background (reminiscent of Gerhard Schröder’s (Germany’s last SPD chancellor’s) self-made man image) lent an authenticity to his proposals for greater social justice that previous candidates lacked. Now two months in and with official manifestos and concrete policy proposals still in the workings, his campaign has hit a lull. Schulz’s numerous appearances in support of his regional party heads could not brush over the absence of any concrete new ideas. That these regional elections were just as much a test of the current national climate as they were about local issues was made abundantly clear by both Merkel and Schulz, making it all that much harder for the latter to dismiss the disappointing results as a mere hiccup.
The Social Democratic Party has struggled to find its footing ever since Gerhard Schröder pushed through his unpopular ‘Agenda 2010’, today mostly accepted as a necessary rejuvenation cure of a then stagnating German economy and an overwhelmed welfare state, to many of the SPD’s core voters though an irredeemable sell-out of the party’s values. Two periods of grand coalitions with the SPD as junior partner to Merkel’s CDU have further eroded previously perceptible differences between the centre left and right.
Schulz’s advantage lies in his outsider status: where previous candidates struggled to explain to voters how a reversal of roles would lead to a different kind of politics, given Merkel’s gradual encroachment on centre left territory within the grand coalition, as an outsider, Schulz could convince with new ideas. It is a difficult balancing act to manage given that his party colleagues in Berlin carry on-going responsibility for the shared legacy of this current government. And accusations of complacency have been frequent, not least because the SPD appeared to back down under conservative pressure even where its core values are concerned. A recent example was the government report on poverty, compiled by the SPD-led Labour Ministry, later significantly rewritten by the Office of the Chancellor, missing in its final version key passages on the influence of lobbyists as well as the impact of growing inequality on social cohesion and economic growth.
The challenge ahead
There are cracks in the surface of Merkel’s global image of an unstoppable force for domestic economic growth and international leadership. Yet her ability to rebuff challengers both within her Bavarian sister party as well as from the extreme right, which has been caught up in constant infighting between its openly national socialist factions and the more UKIP-style Eurosceptic wing, has impressed the German electorate – and kept her safely ahead in the polls over the past weeks. Merkel demonstrates what “strong and stable leadership” looks like in practice, never taking her success for granted, always cultivating her image of forward-looking rationality, especially where her competitors take to alpha male noise in a scramble for media attention.
Even amongst the under-30s, Merkel’s omnipresent shadow over local politics guaranteed the conservatives a safe lead in last Sunday’s election. Not least because one might think they were talking about Macron’s youthful En Marche movement when cheering Merkel’s likely fourth turn as chancellor. Amidst young people’s euphoria for Merkel’s staunch defence of her open borders policy, her otherwise firmly conservative social values vis-à-vis the role of the family and LGBTQ rights, previously a significant impediment to young votes, seem a forgotten aspect in the public debate.
The greater diversity in political parties set to pass the five per cent hurdle on 24 September offers the possibility of triple alliances shaking up the traditional two party coalition setting. The Liberal Democrats, previously nearly vanished from the political landscape, have been pocketing AfD voters with a more politically correct version of their anti-open borders stance, which in turn raises the question of a possible “traffic light coalition” (SPD, Liberal Democrats, and Greens), should the social democrats be able to revive the Schulz euphoria.
Four months ahead of the election however, Merkel’s 12 per cent lead renders any radical shift in German politics highly unlikely. “Kohl’s girl” as the ambitious protégée of the last chancellor to hold office for 16 years was once dismissed, looks set to dominate German politics for the foreseeable future.
Lisa Dittmer, Editor of the PS21 Blog.