A few weeks ago, Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany and one of the most powerful politicians in the world, appeared to be the likely winner of the next general election in Germany in September. Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) were leading the polls comfortably. A potential challenger was nowhere to be found.
The political landscape, however, changed when the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), which is currently in a coalition with the CDU, decided to announce Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament, to be their leading figure for the electoral campaign. The German democratic system allows the parliament to elect the chancellor. A party does not need to announce a candidate for office beforehand, yet almost every party presents their potential runner to the electorate, in order to project their chosen contender’s image into the limelight.
Merkel’s popularity took a hit in the wake of the refugee crisis in 2015 when she and her government decided to let a high amount of asylum seekers into the country. Her reaction to the scenes at the Budapest Central Station and the suffering in refugee camps in Southeast Europe was met with criticism by a part of the German public. The incident in Cologne on the night of New Year’s Eve 2016, where several men of North African descent attacked women at the central station forecourt, was also proof in the critics’ eyes that Germany had let the ‘pest’ come into their country.
In the following months, Merkel and the CDU recovered from the crisis, as the government and local administrations gained control over the influx of refugees and organised the petition process. Nevertheless, Merkel’s peak in popularity seemed to be over, although her value to Germany’s foreign policy and skills on the diplomatic stage were still of paramount, recognised importance.
Unlike her mentor Helmut Kohl, the chancellor of West Germany between 1982 and 1990 and of a reunified Germany between 1990 and 1998, Merkel has developed a kind of resilience and calmness that is unusual for powerful politicians in this day and age. Moreover, she has managed to satisfy both right- and left-wing conservatives within her party, and in so doing, she has also created compromises accepted by both the CDU and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).
In the long run, the German social democrats have suffered far more during their participation in the governing coalition than the CDU. Without a charismatic leader or a party programme that would distinguish the SPD from other parties, polls at a state-wide level were far from promising. The announcement that Schulz would be the social democratic candidate has changed the prospect for the election dramatically.
The latest polls conducted by Forsa showed a jump from 21 to 31 per cent for the SPD within a few weeks, which means the gap to the CDU, at 34 per cent, is now closer than it has been for a long time. An Emnid poll published on 19 February 2017 even sees the SPD one per cent ahead of their rival, as CDU experiences a drop to 32 per cent. The results suggest that Schulz attracts people who had previously stated they would stay at home on election day. Consequently, the 61-year-old can seriously challenge Merkel for her seat in the Office of the Federal Chancellor.
Schulz pushed the SPD back into a winnable race with the CDU, but he and his party have to deliver a distinctive programme, as Manfred Güllner, CEO of Forsa, stated. Thus far, Schulz’s goals in terms of domestic policy have remained, for the most part, a secret. On the other hand, given his career, one can assume that he can play the role of an experienced diplomat, a characteristic which usually gave Merkel an advantage over her competitors both from inside and outside her party. Schulz in his position as the president of the European Parliament was often the voice of pro-European Union streams within the political elite in Germany, while he had not to be involved in political turf battles in Berlin.
This comfort for Schulz is over, and he must now accept that his candidacy will render him a target for the CDU and parts of the German media. Within conservative circles, documents that list alleged frailties of Schulz in the past are already circulating. The weekly Der Spiegel published a report on 18 February 2017 that details how one of Schulz’s employees worked in Berlin for the Media Intelligence Unit of the European Parliament while claiming that his official residence was Brussels which allowed him to receive money for trips to Berlin that never happened. Markus Engels said that the employee, who now manages Schulz’s campaign, justified this action stating he was permanently ‘away on duty.’
An internal note by EU officials also shows that in October 2015 Schulz tried to let four other employees receive benefits. According to the note, the attempt was ‘not consistent with the staff regulations’ of the EU. Even though practices like that are quite usual within parliaments and the amongst the political elite in general, the story does cast a shadow on Schulz’s ostensibly clean slate.
This was not the only recent investigative report that has dug into his past. The conservative magazine FOCUS ran its lead story about Schulz on 18 February 2017 entitled ‘The Hypocrite,’ outlining how Schulz received attendance fees without attending parliamentary meetings, how he pushed the careers of his entourage and how he did everything to avoid an investigation regarding ‘Lux Leaks’ where his ally Jean-Claude Junker was allegedly involved. For years, Luxemburg promised tax abatement for large companies to attract them while those companies were able to avoid tax payments in Germany among other states—a practice Schulz is now criticising as part of his campaign.
With more than six months until the election, the hype might have come too early, and the magic could be gone when the electorate steps up to the ballot box. On the other hand, a candidate like Schulz, who is rhetorically talented and does not have a history of failures serving as a minister or party leader, can perhaps defy Merkel, often called Teflon-coated, to take a stand and define clear-cut domestic political goals. If Schulz remains as popular as he is at the moment, Merkel cannot hope to rely on her diplomatic prowess and historic clean-sweep to see her through this round of elections.