The Schulz effect

The energetic start that Martin Schulz has made to his campaign for the chancellorship is a marked contrast to Angela Merkel’s managerial style, argues Florian Ranft

It has been a near sensation for social democrats to follow Germany’s public opinion polls recently. After years of being stuck in the 20-and-a-few-per-cent-trap, Martin Schulz’s nomination lifted the Social Democratic party out of its public opinion misery, and is now polling at around 30 per cent. A few polls even saw the SPD ahead of the CDU/CSU, which is a rare scenario given that they are the junior partner in the coalition government. The numbers have slightly cooled down but Schulz and the SPD remain in touching distance with Angela Merkel.

Can Schulz beat Merkel?

For the first time in years the upheaval in the polls has lifted the spirits and hopes of many social democrats not just in Germany, but across the continent. And this is happening against the backdrop of Britain’s decision to depart from the European Union and a political earthquake in the United States under president Donald Trump. There is good reason to believe that the SPD with Martin Schulz will gain electoral ground on 24 September 2017.

Whether he can even surpass Merkel in September’s election and become the first social democratic chancellor since Gerhard Schröder remains to be seen. He might continue with this formidable comeback and succeed over Merkel in the same way she took office from her predecessor in 2005, by a gripping and marginal victory. If Merkel resumes her blank-page politics and developments in France and the EU take a positive turn this summer, this scenario will become increasingly more likely.

Merkel moves CDU/CSU to the right

One of Merkel’s main challenges in her campaign is to restore lost credibility and political capital with conservative core voters, who are heavily flirting with the Alternative für Deutschland. At the party conference in December she moved the party firmly to the right on migration policy and home affairs but for some supporters this U-turn comes too late or is not far-reaching enough. They may possibly turn towards the empty and populist promises of the AfD, which announced to run an insurgency Trump-like campaign.

It seems slightly ironic that Merkel’s pledge to a ‘Willkommenskultur’ in 2015 during the refugee crisis might now pave the way for a centre-left candidate into office. Yet, refugees and migration have become less of an issue in German politics since the EU-Turkey deal on refugees. Putting international law and morality aside it has put an end to the influx of refugees and migrants into Greece and thus the rest of Europe. For now, it seems to have also stopped the AfD from gaining more support with those who have lost faith in Merkel’s ‘we can do it’ slogan.

Schulz stands up for change and embraces the left

Schulz’s early success in the polls is rooted in the fact that Merkel has not much else to offer than rhetoric, and often not even that. In contrast, Schulz made an energetic start to his campaign. During his first weeks he has embraced the left by acknowledging that social reforms in Schröder’s ‘Agenda 2010′ might have gone too far. He is staunchly pro-European, seeks to fight tax evasion and supports workers rights, having trained as a bookseller after he finished school. In brief, is trying to connect with voters who feel that Merkel is managing rather than running office at a time when insecurities and pressures on the middle class are rising.

At last, social democratic reform projects of their early days in the coalition government, such as the introduction of a national minimum wage, rent controls and lowering the threshold for pension to age 63, might pay off. They can serve as a signal to voters that the SPD is willing and capable of governing in era of economic and technological change.

In Germany there is saying that you do not get voted into the chancellor’s office, but you get voted out of it. 11 years of Merkel in power might be enough to make that saying true.

For Schulz the Achilles’ heel of his campaign might become the EU, the very project he long fought for. Should Greece and the Eurozone experience another turbulent summer it might put him in an uncomfortable position. As the president of the European parliament he defended Germany’s tough course on Greece in Brussels and Strasbourg limiting his capacities to come up with a plan that goes beyond fiscal tightening and structural adjustment of an economy that is desperately in need for a fresh stimulus. This would require putting common European interests first, challenging the status quo and investing more in the next generation, but maybe Schulz can do that once he is in office.

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Florian Ranft is a policy researcher at Policy Network. He tweets at @FloRanft

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