Schulz shuffles the deck of German politics

Martin Schulz has reinvigorated the German left. [Parti socialiste/Flickr]

Former European Parliament President Martin Schulz has resurrected the left-right divide in German politics ahead of the elections in September. EURACTIV’s partner La Tribune reports.

Who would have thought it? Schulz, the former Parliament head, has given Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) a new lease of life; something it has not experienced since 2005.

Since the announcement of Schulz’s candidacy, the SPD has leapt from 20% in the polls to between 28% and 33%. This is the first time in ten years the party has reached such heights.

According to an 18 February poll by Emnid, the SPD has even overtaken Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party the CSU, with 33% to the CDU/CSU’s 32%.

But this is an isolated result. In most other polls, Merkel still comes out on top, albeit by a tight margin. A Forsa poll published on Wednesday (22 February) placed the CDU/CSU on 34% and the SPD on 31% (a gain of ten points on the previous month’s poll).

Renaissance of the left-right divide

This changes the situation ahead of the September election. With figures back above 30%, the SPD can make a realistic case for the chancellorship. And provide Merkel with her first serious contender since 2005.

One knock-on effect of this, for the first time in many years, has been to restructure the political debate around the left-right axis, rather than the previous consensus-driven centrism promoted by the major parties since Chancellor Gerhard Schröder hailed his government as the “new centre” in 2002.

Schulz’s first victory has been to bring back this historic divide, simultaneously re-establishing the SPD as a “useful” political force. In doing so, he has managed to mobilise both the party’s disenchanted former voters and Germany’s floating voters.

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A new face

Two things have helped the SPD’s new front man pull off this remarkable recovery. Firstly, the fact that he is a new face in Germany has undoubtedly played a role. Here, as in most other EU countries, trust in politicians is at rock-bottom.

Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble are among the only figures to have escaped with relatively untarnished reputations. All the SPD top brass, however, are firmly seen as part of the political establishment, which has lost all credibility.

As an outsider who has spent most of his political career at arm’s length in Brussels, Schulz has an inherent advantage. His candidacy injects a sense of something new into proceedings and makes Merkel look tired.

A poll published by Der Spiegel on 11 February showed voter “satisfaction” with Merkel and Schulz at the same level (55%), while the chancellor had a “dissatisfaction” rating three times higher than her challenger (43% to 17%). And naturally, those voters considering abandoning Merkel see Schulz as a realistic option; something that could not be said for vice-chancellor and SPD veteran Sigmar Gabriel.

Criticising the past

Another important element in Schulz’s popularity is his break with the policies of the Schröder and Merkel era. The former European Parliament president told Bild Zeitung on Monday (20 February) he intended to undo several of Schröder’s reforms, including the reduction of the period covered by unemployment insurance.

He also criticised Merkel’s policy on Greece, which the SPD supported, offering instead a vision of Europe based on greater solidarity.

In taking this social, protective stance and leaving behind the logic of economic competitiveness at any price, the SPD is acknowledging the failures of its own past.

“Populist”?

Is this movement sustainable? With seven months to go before the election nothing could be less certain. In 2009 and 2013, the SPD surged in the polls only to drop off before the vote. But this time, things are different: previous campaigns had little new to offer and were not accompanied by any kind of self-appraisal.

The party’s apparent commitment to reform even led Schäuble to call Martin Schulz a “populist” and compare him to Donald Trump.

Whether or not Schulz will hang on for another seven months remains to be seen. Already the media have probed several accusations of corruption against him, focusing on his use of public money during his five years as European Parliament president.

The key to the campaign will be whether or not these accusations damage him. He will also have to answer questions about his past inconsistencies: he organised the left-right grand coalition in the European Parliament and supported Germany’s pressure on Greece in 2015.

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The future coalition

But the central question of how Schulz will seek to build a coalition government will not be decided until after the election. If the SPD maintains its current position, a ‘red-red-green’ coalition, between the SPD, the Left Party and the Greens, will become a real possibility (with around 48% of votes).

This is the only possible alliance that could overthrow Merkel and bring real change to German politics, both in terms of social and investment policy. Schulz will not yet speak openly about it because it frightens the SPD’s right wing. But it is the only way he can enact the changes he has promised.

The Greens, whose leaders are tempted by an alliance with Merkel, are currently the ones suffering from the SPD’s resurgence. In one month, they have slid from 17% to 10% in the polls. Their role as ‘kingmakers’ is under threat.

Another possibility is the ‘Jamaican’ coalition (yellow, green, black) between the Greens, the Liberals and the CDU. But this would place the Green party firmly on the right side of the political spectrum, and it is by no means certain that their voters would follow.

One thing is certain: Schulz’s foray into German national politics has reshuffled the political deck. The question is whether or not he can hold onto his position until the election.

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