Monday

9th Dec 2019

Martin Schulz, down but not out against Merkel

  • Only 29 percent of voters in North Rhine-Westfallia said that Schulz had influenced their decision to vote SPD. (Photo: Tim Reckmann)

"I’m no magician," admitted a visibly deflated Martin Schulz on Sunday night (14 May) after it became clear that his centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) had suffered what he called a "crushing defeat" in their traditional heartland and his own home state, North Rhine-Westphalia.

By Monday, he and SPD were back in fighting form, saying the federal campaign was only just beginning.

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"Sometimes, a boxer takes a punch," Schulz told party workers at the SPD headquarters in Berlin, "but this doesn’t mean that his opponent will win the next round."

Yet, winning the federal election on 24 September is now seen as an uphill battle against the centre-right Christian Democrat Union (CDU) and its current leader, chancellor Angela Merkel, who has rebounded from her difficulties over the refugee crisis of late 2015 and 2016, now seemingly on track to win a fourth term.

And her party has been energised by the win in North Rhine-Westphalia. The SPD defeat there sent shockwaves through Germany.

The party, which had controlled the state almost continuously since 1966, frittered away a 10-point lead in a poorly-run campaign.

The local CDU leader – the normally rather lacklustre Armin Laschet – constantly hammered the Social Democrats and their Green coalition partners over three key issues: law and order, traffic, and education.

Furthermore, the CDU made Merkel a central part of the campaign, with the chancellor making frequent appearances in the state. Some 59 percent of CDU voters said that she was a factor in their decision.

Only 29 percent said that Schulz had influenced their decision to vote SPD.

Schulz, a former European Parliament president, had somewhat foolhardily tried to tie his fate to that of the popular state leader, Hannelore Kraft, proclaiming that if she were re-elected state governor, he was certain to be elected chancellor.

Although Kraft had asked the federal party to keep out of the campaign and sought to take the blame for the debacle, it was still a blow for Schulz's leadership hopes - coming on the heels of two other recent losses in Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein.

Bellwether state

Regardless of the regional specifics and the fact that the votes were largely about local issues, the national parties were watching the North Rhine-Westphalia vote particularly closely. After all, with one in five Germans living in that state, it was regarded by many as a bellwether, an important indicator of how the federal election might go.

“It’s difficult to win these regional elections against a ‘Bundestrend,’ against what is going on in national politics,” says Carsten Nickel of political risk firm Teneo Intelligence, pointing out that in two of the three regional votes the CDU had unseated the sitting SPD government.

“That really goes to show that there is strong momentum for Merkel.”

Indeed, the CDU is now running 10 points ahead of the SPD at 37 percent to 27 percent.

Nevertheless, Gero Neugebauer, professor at the Free University in Berlin, warned against completely writing off Schulz. “The framework conditions for the federal election are not yet clear,” he told EUobserver

One thing is clear, however. The SPD has up to now over-relied on the charisma and novelty of their new leader.

Schulz should not run a personality-based campaign, warned Neugebauer. “If you make it about choosing between Angela Merkel and him, then people will choose Merkel. It must be a choice between a fairer politics or the old Merkel politics.”

Schulz’s one theme up to now, “social justice,” is regarded as too vague and is not resonating enough with voters.

In a recent poll by the ARD public broadcaster, 66 percent of respondents said it wasn’t clear to them what policies Schulz actually wanted to implement.

On Monday, Schulz pledged to outline more policies, including on education, increased investment, tax and Europe, as well as on security, which was a major issue in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Playing catch-up

The party’s manifesto will be signed off by the leadership next Monday and will then be approved by the party at a conference on 25 June. That then leaves the party three months to try to catch up with Merkel, who will present her party’s manifesto in July.

A major obstacle for Schulz is that he has no official platform, as he is not a government minister, so he has to rely on campaign events to get his message through.

Merkel, on the other hand, can continue to meet world leaders, such as new French president Emmanuel Macron on Monday, and attend summits.

For instance, Germany will host the G20, a forum of the world's 20 major economies, this summer – adding to her gravitas and reinforcing her status as a safe pair of hands in an increasingly turbulent world.

Meanwhile, the increased fragmentation of the party landscape has made coalition-building harder for the SPD. There are likely to be six parties in the Bundestag after the September election.

Schulz initially seemed to flirt with a coalition with both the Greens and the far-left Left Party (Die Linke) but that put off centrist voters, and has now all but ruled that out.

It makes it difficult to see how he can gain a majority to defeat Merkel’s CDU.

“Merkel so firmly controls the centre ground, she always has the coalition options,” Nickel told EUobserver. “That is her main achievement. She has placed the CDU so far in the centre that they can pick and choose.”

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