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Home Opinion Turning the tables: How will Martin Schulz lead the SPD into the 2017 elections?
State of the Left Germany

Turning the tables: How will Martin Schulz lead the SPD into the 2017 elections?

Florian Ranft - 07 February 2017

A recent poll bounce has sparked optimism among German progressives

In his seven years as SPD chairman, Sigmar Gabriel has always been good for a surprise. But even for colleagues and party insiders his resignation, and the nomination of Martin Schulz as the candidate for the federal elections, came as a political shock a fortnight ago. Within seven days of his announcement, Gabriel has filled the position of foreign secretary, one left open by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is expected to become as president of Germany on 12 February.

Unlike other European centre-left parties, such as the PS in France or Labour in the UK, German social democrats took no chances, opting for a traditional nomination procedure behind closed doors. The decision of the executive board was unanimous and will be subject to the vote of party members at a party conference in March.

Schulz made an overwhelming start, outperforming the CDU/CSU in an Insa poll for the first time on record, but his task will not get smaller. He has to convince German voters of why he and the SPD, not Angela Merkel and the CDU/CSU, would lead the country into a more prosperous and stable future.

Gabriel’s goodbye

Instead of sharing the news with colleagues and members Gabriel first made it public in an old-fashioned weekly magazine, der Stern, which did not resonate well with MPs and party members. Gabriel’s last-minute withdrawal mirrors his time as the party’s chairman and can be best described as an ill-fated campaign.

Although his legacy as economy minister can be deemed a success – growth is fairly stable and unemployment figures remain low – he never fully connected with core supporters of the party. But in the end he took a decision that deserves respect, putting the interest of the party ahead of his own agenda.

A solid start: Schulz and the SPD on the rise

While the SPD and Gabriel were languishing in the polls, most commentators believe that last week’s wake-up call came at the right time for a party that is at risk of another disappointing result in September’s election.

There is reason for optimism. An opinion poll published the day after Gabriel’s withdrawal put Merkel and Schulz head to head in public support, on 41 per cent each. He is also seen as more competent and more likable than Merkel. More importantly in a parliamentary system, Schulz’ popularity is also reflected in the most recent national polls where the SPD has been narrowing the gap with the CDU/CSU, currently polling at 26 per cent. One poll by Bild, from 6 February, the day on which the CDU/CSU confirmed Merkel as the official candidate for elections, even sees the conservatives trailing the SPD now by one per cent.

These figures must be carefully considered. They might only be a snapshot reflecting the relief that the SPD has a new leader. In 2008, Frank-Walter Steinmeier made an equally promising start, but only a few months later trailed Merkel hopelessly and lost the 2009 federal election in a landslide.

The road ahead for the Brussels politician

In preventing Merkel from becoming chancellor for the fourth time, Martin Schulz is now seen by many as the Hoffnungsträger who can inject missing momentum into the SPD’s electoral bid. His charisma, popularity, pro-European agenda and working-class background allow him to build a political platform beyond the party’s moderates. His advantage over Gabriel is that he is in the political centre of the party but also appeals to the influential left wing of the SPD, which in October last year gave him a stage to express his interest of being the frontrunner.

But once the honeymoon period is over Schulz must convince voters of why he and the SPD are the better choice. Schulz has no experience on the national stage of German politics, which is both an advantage and liability at the same time.

Coming from Brussels, where he served as the president of the European parliament, Schulz has more credibility and leverage to attack Merkel and the CDU/CSU because he was not directly involved in any cabinet decisions. However, having been at the forefront of EU politics, not all voters who wish for change might regard Schulz’s nomination as a fresh start for Germany.

He is as much a member of the European political establishment as Gabriel, which might be a decisive factor in the run up to the election, depending on the results in France and Netherlands. There, anti-European candidates are a severe challenge to moderate parties and the EU as a whole and it is to be seen what impact the elections have on German politics.

Defying Merkel and avoiding the squeeze in the middle

In contrast to previous campaigns in 2009 and 2013, Merkel does not appear to be as strong. Although she is seen as one of the last standing institutions defending western values, democracy and the EU, she has been under considerable pressure at home. The CSU and Alternative für Deutschland have forced her to take a tougher stance on migration and security, moving the CDU to the right.

This has opened some space in the political centre for the SPD. However, until now voters have not given the SPD much credit for the reform projects which were clearly social democratic, such as the introduction of a national minimum wage and rent restrictions in 2015.

The risk for Social Democrats is that voters might regard their manifesto as a continuation of coalition politics with Merkel. They must be as innovative/radical and moderate as possible at the same time, which has proven a huge task for progressives across Europe. If they fail to do so they might squeezed between the CDU/CSU on one side and the Greens and the Left party on the other side.

In his three public speeches so far, Schulz has given us only a glimpse of what voters can expect from him. Among his policy priorities are the fight against tax evasion, a strong commitment to European solutions (which in turn means a tough position in the negotiations with the UK over their EU departure), workers’ protection and affordable housing.   

Learning from Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama, he and the SPD should be reminded that a successful campaign in an era populism is built around the rhetoric of hope not fear. Only if people believe that they will be better off in open societies they will vote for change.

Florian Ranft is a senior researcher and adviser at Policy Network

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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