SHORTLY after his emergence as the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, Martin Schulz was interviewed on “Anne Will”, one of Germany’s top political talk-shows. Quizzed on his prospects of victory he observed that the SPD had picked up about ten points in the polls in one week. “If we carry on rising at that pace I imagine I will win” he replied, dead-pan. It was about two parts humour, one part sheer bravura.
For a few weeks the confidence was borne out. The SPD had drawn almost level with the CDU for the first time in seven years—and held that position in poll after poll. Something was happening. This was a trend. Only partially tongue-in-cheek internet memes celebrated the #schulzzug (the “Schulz train”) and proclaimed: MEGA (“Make Europe Great Again”). “Saint Martin” ran a cover of Der Spiegel. A satirical TV show mocked up CDU posters showing the chancellor gesturing approvingly at her SPD rival: “Vote Merkel — She knows Martin Schulz personally!”
The hype had to cool eventually. And the big chill came on March 26th, with the Saarland state election. Polls suggested that the SPD there, previously far behind, was closing in on the CDU. Would this be the first dramatic expression of the Schulz effect? No, came the reply: the SPD lost one point of support, the CDU gained five. To be sure, this was a small state with a very popular minister president; and the SPD did outperform its pre-Schulz polling. But since then national polls have seen the party wobble slightly, falling from about one point behind the CDU to about three now. In the latest ZDF politics barometer, published today, Angela Merkel opens up an eight point lead in the “K-Frage” (the question of whom voters would most like to be chancellor), where the two were neck-and-neck last month.
Comparisons are drawn with Peer Steinbrück, like Mr Schulz a gutsy Rhinelander on the SPD right, who enjoyed a brief poll boost after his selection as chancellor candidate ahead of the 2013 election. Mrs Merkel went on to win that contest with a 16 point lead. Will Mr Schulz go the same way?
Probably not, is the answer: Mr Schulz’s poll boost is much larger than that enjoyed by Mr Steinbrück. He is a fresher face to most Germans (his predecessor had been finance minister under Mrs Merkel). He probably has better judgment than Mr Steinbrück, whose most impactful media intervention during the 2013 campaign may have been his pose for a magazine cover, two weeks before the vote, giving the camera the middle finger and a sarcastic expression. Still, whether Mr Schulz can consolidate and build on his stratospheric initial rise is questionable. With almost half a year to go until a volatile general election, informed speculation about Mr Schulz’s prospects (the Berlin parlour game du jour) is the best an honest pundit can offer. So here, in the service of that endeavour, are what I see as his main strengths and weaknesses:
The ordinary bloke factor. I witnessed this during a day with Mr Schulz on the campaign trail in Saarland. He has an almost Clintonian (Bill) ability to make regular voters feel listened to and included; in the squares of Saarbrücken he slapped backs, munched a sausage and bantered with shoppers without a trace of awkwardness. His stump speeches are populated by what I took to considering “Schulz’s People”—the cast of characters personalising his case for a stronger social safety net. There is the shop assistant fired for a minor mistake, the fat cat who drives his business to the wall and gets a giant payoff, the single mother who wants to work but can’t afford the childcare. To listen to him orate is to pay a visit to Schulz-town, a place where (like something out of a 19th century novel) everyone stands for some social force, where everyone’s personal story is a parable. Indeed, Schulz-town exists: Würselen, the suburb of Aachen where Mr Schulz was mayor from 1987 to 1998. In his speeches this place, his neighbours and even his own family stand for Germany. The whole spectacle moves some of his former Brussels colleagues to hilarity, even fury—the European capital has something of a love-hate relationship with the former European Parliament president—but in German political terms he is undeniably relatable.
Novelty. As one member of Mr Schulz’s team put it to me: he is in a perfect middle ground. Germans have heard of him, thanks especially to the “Spitzenkandidat” process in the 2014 European election, whereby leaders of each of the European political families clashed directly in a bid to stir up some public interest (Mr Schulz led for the social democrats). So he is not an unknown. But at the same time he is not too familiar: people can project onto him all sorts of things. Mrs Merkel has been chancellor for 12 years and is flirting with the curse of the fourth-term: she is known to reflect on the subsequent downfalls of the two previous chancellors who took that gamble, Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl. SPD optimists reckon voters are tired of her style of politics (“endlessly deliberating before reaching a solution to which she claims there is no alternative” says one) and are ready for a change.
Hunger. In an interview in the latest issue of Der Spiegel, one quote by Gerhard Schröder stands out: “Martin Schulz wants it—unconditionally”. The last SPD chancellor’s theory is that to win that job, you have to want it with every fibre of your being. You have to crave it. Mr Schröder did. Mr Steinbrück did not. Nor did Sigmar Gabriel, the former SPD boss who surprised Berlin by standing aside in January for his old friend. But Mr Schulz yearns. Since becoming candidate he has charged around Germany and given dozens of interviews; he has hurled himself at the voters. Everything he says is calibrated to woo them.
A sense of history. This plays a special role in German politics. Which other country has a capital littered with monuments to its own past crimes and folly? Which other country sends every schoolchild to the sites of its own historical barbarism? Mrs Merkel works within this tradition, but Mr Schulz invokes it with particular gusto. He characterises the right-populist Alternative für Deutschland as a test of the country’s resolve never to ignore the lessons of its past. He invokes the five-hectare Holocaust Memorial in Berlin (criticised by Björn Höcke, a firebrand on the AfD right) and talks eloquently about the SPD as a “bulwark of democracy”. He is never happier than when hailing Kurt Schumacher, Otto Wels and other heroes of the social democratic opposition to fascism. Having witnessed this electrify the audience in a small village hall in rural Saarland, I am loath to underestimate its force.
Germany’s imperfect boom. This gets at the paradox at the heart of the Schulz effect. Germany is doing well. It is rich (unemployment here regularly hits new lows, exports new highs), broadly well-run and enjoys an excellent quality of life. Angela Merkel has moved her centre-right party to the left and dominates the political centre. So why is Mr Schulz suddenly doing well? In truth, Germany’s success is partly a product of wage restraint; pay is rising now, but after a long period of stagnation and at the same time as inflation is ticking up. Investment is low. In an economically successful country where an interventionist state is the norm, voters expect more. Many feel like they are doing well enough, with three caveats: they feel they should be doing better, they feel society at large is not doing well, they expect things to go south in the near future. Mr Schulz is tapping into these sentiments.
Unfamiliarity with Germany. Mr Schulz was elected to the European Parliament in 1994 and based his professional life there until this January. He has been Brussels-based for about 85% of Germany’s post-reunification history. Party insiders worry that this will show as the campaign unfolds; during television debates, for example. Nodding to his recent interview with the Bild newspaper—in which he claimed that 40% of young Germans are on short-term contracts, the correct figure being 14%—they fret that he couild fall into the trap that devoured Rudolf Scharping. The SPD’s chancellor candidate in 1994 never quite lived down an incident in which he appeared to confuse “gross” and “net”. To be fair Mr Schulz is apparently revising like mad, but up against Mrs Merkel, who masters detail, he may struggle.
Red socks. A second spectre of 1994 haunts Mr Schulz: public concerns about a coalition between the SPD and the socialist, anti-NATO party to its left. Mr Scharping had no real plans to form a coalition with the PDS (as it was then called), but the CDU only had to run posters showing red socks, a pejorative symbol of that party, hanging on a clothes line to put the frights up voters. And Mr Schulz stands a real chance of forming a coalition with Die Linke (the PDS’s successor party) if the numbers allow. This scares some in middle Germany; indeed, the prospect of an SPD-Linke coalition in Saarland undoubtedly contributed to high turnout among CDU voters there. At a time when the threat from the east looks more daunting than it has at any point since the end of the Cold War, this might be replicated at a national level.
Ghosts from Brussels. German papers have carried stories suggesting that Mr Schulz funnelled jobs and resources to allies during his time in the powerful European Parliament presidency. Though it seems Germans care little about this sort of favouritism, have priced it in or don’t believe he did anything terribly wrong, new revelations could weigh him down.
Asymmetrical mobilisation. Part of Mrs Merkel’s political genius over the past decade has been not just to persuade former Schröder voters to back her party, but also to persuade many more simply to stay at home. If you are on the centre-left and are not terribly interested in politics, the minimum-wage-introducing, pension-age-cutting chancellor has made it pretty easy not to bother voting. The combination of an SPD electorate that could live with a fourth Merkel chancellorship and an engaged CDU electorate motivated (as in Saarland) by the risk of Die Linke joining the government could wreck Mr Schulz’s chances. He seems to be alive to this problem: witness his energetic campaigning and aggressive talk about the AfD. But that is not to say he can solve it. Of all the factors listed in this post, I suspect this will be the most significant.
The Merkel effect. You would not know it from some of the English-language coverage of Germany, but after twelve years and all the attendant dramas Mrs Merkel remains strong—if not always liked then certainly respected. Her approval rating is high, higher than it has been since 2015. She radiates stability. For proof of this, just look at Mr Schulz’s own comments. He mostly shies away from criticising her (in fact in some of his interviews he seems to suggest she is just a social democrat who ended up in the wrong party—a claim echoed behind closed doors by some in the CDU). Instead he criticises her colleagues and in particular the more socially conservative CSU, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party. Mrs Merkel still commands the centre (I know former Green voters now contemplating voting for her). In a world beset, more than ever, by turbulence she offers continuity. Mr Schulz ignores this at his peril.
What does all of this mean? I find myself torn between gut and head. My head says that people become tired of leaders who have led for 12 years. It says that the SPD’s poll advance in recent months is unprecedented; that Mr Schulz is rattling the handle of a conspicuously unlocked door. It says that he is somehow different from the many men who have taken on Ms Merkel and been flattened in the process (like trees in the path of a new autobahn, as Der Spiegel put it of her destruction of Friedrich Merz, a one-time rival for the CDU leadership). But my gut says that Germany, a small-c conservative country, is too fond of stability and too comfortable a place for people to risk change.
Head or gut? Which is right? In the coming months, Kaffeeklatsch will cover the election campaign as it unfolds. Stay tuned.
Clarification: An eagle-eyed commenter points out that Mr Steinbrück is not a born-and-bred Rhinelander, but a Hanseat. Quite right. I should have specified that (though Rhineland politics was his springboard to the national scene) he grew up in Kiel and Hamburg.