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State of the Left Germany

Can Schulz sustain the SPD’s momentum ahead of this year’s German election?

Michelle Mülhausen - 23 March 2017

The party’s new leader is putting more traditional social democratic issues back on the agenda

Shortly after Martin Schulz declined to run for another term as president of the European parliament and instead devoted himself to the German domestic political stage, rumours about his potential candidature for the office of chancellor of Germany emerged. Therefore, the 24 January 2017 announcement of his nomination as the new leader of the German Social Democratic party (SPD) and as the party’s candidate for the position of chancellor did not come as a complete surprise. It did, however, produce considerable respect for his predecessor, the vice chancellor and federal minister for foreign affairs, Sigmar Gabriel, for stepping back and putting the party’s interest before his personal ambitions. Polls quickly shifted in Martin Schulz’ favour and elevated the party back into levels of popularity not imaginable at any moment in its recent past.

Currently, this leaves only a marginal gap between the SPD and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and, perhaps even more importantly, suggests a head-to-head race between Schulz and Merkel running for the office of chancellor. It must, however, be noted that the head of government is not elected directly in Germany, but determined by the share of votes obtained by each party.

Interestingly, up to this point, none of the parties of the centre have managed to challenge the agenda-setting power of the far right, which successfully narrowed public debate to revolve almost exclusively around asylum policies in recent years. This seems to have changed with Martin Schulz entering the German political scene and putting more traditional social democratic issues back on the table. Inclusive growth, social mobility, and social justice are the key words of his speeches which spark a level of enthusiasm among his audience that has not been witnessed by any social democrat in a long time.

Stemming from a rather modest background, Martin Schulz had to overcome various personal drawbacks throughout his life and he epitomises the image of the ordinary man who had to fight his way up. Despite his experience within the political establishment of Brussels, he rallies voters from across the political spectrum, a feat that previously the parties of the political centre have not been able to accomplish.

Significantly, he sparked new debate around the legacies of the Agenda 2010, a labour market and welfare system reform agenda implemented by the social democratic government under Gerhard Schröder in 2003-05. Seen by many as the backbone of the country’s current stable economic situation, this interpretation is heavily contested by its critics, claiming that it was a mere austerity measure which ultimately condemned many workers to precarious lives in unstable job sectors. Recently, Schulz announced a proposal, together with SPD federal minister of labour and social affairs, Andrea Nahles, to reform several policies of the Agenda 2010, in particular the provision of unemployment benefits. Some commentators interpret his initiative as a sign of his positioning among the party’s left wing. Several other strands of the SPD, however, equally hope that Schulz will be their mouthpiece in repositioning the party vis-à-vis their current coalition partner, Angela Merkel’s CDU.

After Schulz was unanimously confirmed as the new SPD leader, it remains to be seen in the final months leading up to the September 2017 parliamentary elections whether his momentum can be sustained. This will not only depend on Martin Schulz’s success in turning his currently somewhat vague propositions into concrete steps for action, but will also be influenced by the election results in France. After Geert Wilders’ failed attempt to further institutionalise his xenophobic and anti-European influence on Dutch politics, the time seems ripe to challenge the power of such rhetoric and put social democratic issues back on the European and national agendas.

Michelle Mülhausen is a post-graduate student at the London School of Economics. She previously worked at the Berlin-based thinktank Das Progressive Zentrum and at an international affairs magazine

This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's regular insight bulletin reporting from across the world of social democratic politics

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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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