The end of the Merkel era? The astonishing revival of the Social Democrats in Germany
February 28, 2017 - by Oliver Schmidtke, Center for Global Studies, University of Victoria
Until recently, Angela Merkel’s grip on power appeared rock solid. As part of the currently ruling grand collation, Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) were not able to form a viable alternative to Merkel’s 12-year reign nor did they show any particular eagerness to establish the government after the upcoming September 2017 elections. Many political commentators already predicted the irreversible end of the SPD as Germany’s ‘People’s Party’. Similarly, the rise of the right-wing, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany does not pose a veritable challenge to the supremacy of Chancellor Merkel. There are clear indications that the Party has outlived its hype in the wake of the refugee crisis and that projected electoral support levels are back in the single digits. Until the end of 2016, a fourth term in office for Merkel was almost a fail accomplish more than six months before the elections.
Yet, events over the past few weeks indicate how volatile electoral politics has become in Western liberal democracies. In late January, Germany’s Social Democrats nominated Martin Schulz as their candidate for chancellor, reacting to the sobering realization that Sigmar Gabriel, chairman of the SPD and the current Minister for Foreign Affairs, simply proved unappealing to the electorate. What has happened over the past month is truly remarkable considering how we normally think about party preferences and loyalty. A party that seemed to be resigned to losing yet another election, deprived of any inspiration, has come to life from one day to the other. The SPD has seen the massive influx of new members; the ‘Martin Schulz fever’ has spread all across the country. While at the beginning of 2017, the SPD was projected to attract somewhat more than 20% of electoral support, most recent surveys put the party above 30%, if not in the lead over Merkel’s Christian Democrats. And, most notably given Angela Merkel’s long standing popularity, Martin Schulz is now leading Merkel as the public’s preferred candidate for the chancellorship.
Where does this remarkable turn of the SPD’s fortunes come from? Evidently, the German public has been treated to a breeze of fresh air in a party system that has seen an extraordinary degree of continuity over the past decades. Martin Schulz has the advantage of being a new face on the local political stage. As a longstanding Member of the European Parliament, he has spent most of his career working at the European level, most recently as the President of the European Parliament (2012 to 2017) and before this as the leader of the EP’s Progressive Alliance of Socialist and Democrats group. The – appealing – sense of being an outsider to the political establishment is further underlined by the fact that Mr Schulz has never held a political office in Germany beyond being the major of his hometown of Würselen (not one of Germany’s urban centres) and that he is a high school drop out. Most importantly, however, is Martin Schulz’s ability to speak to traditional core values of Social Democracy. Issues of social justice and social inequality resonate with large parts of the population and the Social Democratic shooting star is able to address these issues in a genuine fashion that, for many, was missing from the New Labour agenda.
Is Martin Schulz thus taking the SPD in the same leftist direction as Jeremy Corbyn does with the British Labour Party? At the moment, it is hard to determine which incarnation of Social Democracy we will see under Schulz. He has long been associated with the SPD’s conservative ‘Seeheim Circle’ and yet Schulz has started to demand a reconsideration of the neoliberal reforms introduced by the party under Gerhard Schroeder. The main appeal of Martin Schulz is his ability to speak to the soul and core identity of a moderate left. And he does this – quite unapologetically – with a populist twist. In a way, Mr. Schulz is the leftist response to Trump’s nationalist populism from the right. He excites those who have felt largely alienated from the political process and its mainstream representatives. The real test will come for the SPD’s new poster child when he will face the task to translate this populist appeal into key policy proposals.
Picture source: http://www.mepheartgroup.eu