Author: Philip Oltermann
If things go Johanna Uekermann’s way, she will wake up on 25 September to the news that Martin Schulz has soundly beaten Angela Merkel in the German elections.
“The era of Europe-wide austerity policies à la Merkel and [Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister] could finally become a thing of the past,” said the 29-year-old leader of the JuSos, the Social Democratic party’s (SPD) youth organisation.
“If a socialist was to win in France, two leftwing pro-Europeans at the helm of Europe’s biggest economies would really send out a signal against the nationalist tendencies we see in Britain, other European countries and America.”
Even true believers on the German left may consider such a scenario to be a utopia – especially as the French left’s only realistic hope for electoral success in May rests on a candidate who declares their politics to be neither of the left or right and has shunned the Socialist party.
But over the last week politicians, activists and party members in Germany have allowed themselves to dream again. Since Schulz, the former president of the European parliament, was announced as the SPD’s candidate for chancellor at the end of January, the party has soared in the polls.
For the second week running, a poll published on Wednesday by Germany’s Forsa institute put the SPD on a five-year high with 31% of the vote, just three percentage points behind Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Another survey, also by Forsa, found that in a theoretical direct vote for the chancellorship, Schulz would win 37% of the vote to Merkel’s 38%.
Another poll published last week saw Schulz’s party overtake the conservatives to become the strongest political force in the country.
“We are seeing an incredible new optimism in meetings and on the campaign trail, especially among young people,” said Uekermann. “Martin Schulz may be part of the federalist avant-garde to some, but to our generation his views are just normal.”
Under his predecessor, Sigmar Gabriel, the Social Democrats entered government via a “grand coalition” but often struggled to claim credit for their own policy initiatives, such as the introduction of a minimum wage in 2015.
Schulz, who has not been directly active in domestic politics since being elected as an MEP, benefits from being seen a relative outsider to the Berlin political establishment.
A former mayor of Würselen near the Dutch border, Schulz has a down-to-earth appeal that Bild newspaper has likened to that of a small-town supermarket manager.
Many experts believe that his rags-to-riches story – a school dropout with an alcohol problem and a failed dream of becoming a professional footballer who cleaned up his act to retrain as a bookseller – could appeal to working-class voters who have become disillusioned with their old party.
“What we can say with relative certainty is that the SPD has moved on from the era where they fielded a candidate who was certain to lose to Merkel before the election campaign had started,” said Werner Patzelt, a politics professor at Dresden’s Technical University. “After 12 years of Merkel, many have grown weary with her cautious, reactive style. Schulz suddenly looks like a genuine alternative.”
The emergence of a US president openly critical of German economic and social policies has led some to call for a more combative stance towards Donald Trump’s government than the course of critical distance pursued by Merkel. In an interview in the new edition of Der Spiegel, Schulz described Trump as a “profound” threat to democratic values who was “gambling with the security of the western world”.
Asked how he would deal with Trump as Germany’s chancellor, Schulz responded by praising Germany’s liberal constitution. “As the leader of such a country I have to pursue a combative approach to all those that question this free, open and tolerant model of a society,” he said.
But many, even on the German left, view their current high with suspicion. If there was a broad leftwing majority at the 2013 German elections, when the SPD, Greens and Left party collectively gained 42.7% of the vote, that majority has crumbled just as the centre-left and far-left parties have taken first steps to overcome their historic animosity.
In recent polls the Greens and the Left party are down to 8%, meaning a so-called “R2G” (Rot-Rot-Grün) coalition would currently fail to get the 50% required to form a majority government.
It also remains unclear if Schulz is the figure who can make the Social Democrats’ working-class base forgive the party for the unpopular “Agenda 2010” labour market changes introduced by the government of Gerhardt Schröder in the early noughties.
While he told Der Spiegel that it had been a “mistake” not to tie the liberalisation of the labour market to the minimum wage and higher taxes for the super rich, he remained vague on whether he would introduce a wealth tax or further increase the minimum wage.
After more than 20 years spent in Brussels and Strasbourg, the 61-year-old faces questions over his strength on domestic questions ranging from asylum policy to video surveillance. His support for euro bonds – loans underwritten by all members of the eurozone – left Schulz isolated even in his own party. Should the Greek debt crisis return to the front pages before the election, it could prove his achilles heel.
When it comes to perceptions of the German parties’ competence, the SPD still trails Merkel’s CDU. “That’s the critical point,” pollster Manfred Güllner told Stern magazine. “That has to change in the coming weeks if we want to create a real mood for change.”