Letter from … Berlin

SPD candidate Martin Schulz made two disastrous errors when launching his candidacy, finds Simon Vaut

Martin Schulz achieved something the German Social Democrats have not seen in a long time: a unified party. The delegates voted unanimously at the SPD party convention for him as party leader and to challenge chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as for his election manifesto. Schulz is perceived among his comrades as an authentic and compassionate representative of his party. His message ‘time for social justice’ resonates well within a party that is still divided about Gerhard Schröder’s ‘Agenda 2010’ reforms, which increased prosperity and slashed unemployment but are perceived as socially unbalanced.

For a few weeks in early 2017 the Schulz euphoria in Labour’s sister party led to higher poll numbers. But the honeymoon is over because the candidate himself made two major mistakes. He spoke way too much about his achievements very early in his career as mayor of the tiny village of Würselen. This humble approach was popular with his party base, but it is hardly what voters expect from a possible replacement for Merkel, whom many refer to as the ‘leader of the free world’. The multilingual Schulz, who dealt with all kinds of crises in the European Union and negotiated with many important leaders of the world, should have emphasised his achievements as president of the European Parliament.

His second mistake was failing to give convincing answers to problems beyond social justice. His remarks on economics, digitisation, immigration, and other important topics were vague and bland and his attacks on Merkel have seemed desperate and unconvincing. In the German centre-left’s last landslide victory in 1998, the party decisively won under the banner of both social justice and innovation. That is the recipe Hubertus Heil, who recently became secretary general of the SPD in a last minute reshuffle of the party leadership, has tried to replicate in hurriedly developing a ‘Future Plan’ for Germany. In addition to the election manifesto, this plan describes in broad strokes a European solution to the migration crisis, calls rightly for investment in education, infrastructure, and digitisation – but so far it has not been communicated effectively to voters. The presentation of the Future Plan lacked a convincing narrative and for this election, the SPD decided against a shadow cabinet, which means there is a lack of faces who stand for these topics.

So the ‘Schulz bounce’ was a rather short-lived phenomenon. Now Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union is stable in the high 30s, with the SPD in the low 20s and the Green party, Free Democrats, far-left Die Linke, and rightwing populists Alternative for Germany all trail at around 8 per cent. It is unlikely but not entirely impossible that Schulz has a last minute swing and rules in a three-party coalition with the Greens and either the Free Democrats or Die Linke. After all, voter turnout in Germany is predicted to go up, with many undecided voters. Recent elections in other Western countries were full of surprises – just ask Hillary Clinton or Theresa May. But Germans in general have little appetite for change when there is no severe crisis, and have therefore had only three chancellors in 35 years. Those who like the current government vote for Merkel’s party and not her junior partner the SPD. And for those who desire change, Schulz represents too much of the status quo.

Even more unlikely than a shock Schulz win is SPD involvement in another grand coalition. The party is tired of doing the hard work in a rather successful government without getting any of the glory Merkel constantly receives. Austria is a cautionary example where the large parties suffered significantly from being in a grand coalition too long, which also gave extremists a boost.

So Merkel most likely will stay in office. She may be able to govern with the pro-business liberal Free Democratic party, which has rebounded after having lost all their seats in the Bundestag four years ago. That will probably produce a weak government. After four years of absence from the parliament, the FDP has hardly any competent politicians. And Merkel’s ministers are either worn out like Wolfgang Schäuble who was already minister in the late 1980s or act very clumsy like her minister of interior or her minister of transport. She does not like strong ministers around her.

If Merkel gets fewer votes than expected, she will try to get the Green party on board in a three party coalition. The agendas of the parties are not close but are compatible enough to comprise a coalition; yet the main obstacle will still be animosity between the Free Democrats and the Greens.

In any case, Merkel learnt from the mistakes of former chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl of staying for too long in office. She will step down in two or three years after being re-elected. But after 12 years with Merkel in the chancellory and 15 years as her party’s chairman, there is no strong successor in sight who could replicate her success.

Then the SPD can recover in opposition, win again in the Länder, and put pressure on Merkel’s government via the Bundesrat (the upper house that represents the Länder on the federal level). In four years, with an agenda that includes social justice and innovation, the SPD could attack Merkel’s successor effectively. So in the meantime, the outlook for social democrats is bleak, but after the end of the Merkel era, the party has the potential to bounce back.

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Simon Vaut is a speech writer in the German Federal Foreign Office and is a founding member of the Berlin-based thinktank Das Progressive Zentrum

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