Schulz-train blues?

By Tobias Dürr & Michael Miebach
2 June 2017
Germany Germany
Despite regional election defeats, the SPD's Martin Schulz could pick up steam again with a modern, creative vision
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The past four months has seen one of the strangest and weirdest periods in recent German party political and electoral history. This phase began on 24 January when Social Democratic party leader, Sigmar Gabriel, decided not to run as the candidate for chancellor this autumn, and also to step down as chairman of the SPD. In came Martin Schulz, the former president of the European parliament – an important man on the European stage, but a largely unknown quantity in terms of German domestic politics.

At the time of Gabriel’s decision, the SPD had been consistently polling in the low 20 per cent bracket for years – much too low for a party that traditionally sees itself on a par with the other great German Volkspartei (or people’s party), Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. But, for the SPD, a lot had gone wrong for a long time. Though still successful on the regional level of the German Bundesländer, the SPD has been an unhappy party for years. Three things in particular weighed down heavily on the party:

First, the SPD has never fully come to terms with its own important social and labour market reforms, implemented from 2003 to 2005 during the time in office of the last Social Democratic chancellor, Gerhard Schröder.

Second, Social Democrats feel treated unfairly – by the public, by the media, by political and historical circumstances. Indeed, in the current German grand coalition, it has largely been the SPD whose more professional ministers (Gabriel – economy, Steinmeier – foreign affairs, Nahles – labour and social services, Maas – justice, Schwesig – family and youth) have delivered the goods in terms of popular and useful policies. Their constant ‘Exhibit A’ in this respect has been the successful introduction of a minimum wage, but other reforms like paid parental leave come to mind as well. However, Social Democratic efforts on behalf of the ‘regular guy’ and the working family went largely unappreciated in terms of poll ratings and popularity.

Third, one major trend in current history has been the long-term decline of European social democracy. Social democratic parties have been losing elections in alarming ways. Hence, Germany’s Social Democrats have long been haunted by the dark foreboding that they, too, might ultimately be threatened by extinction. The longer-term trends of economic and social change certainly do not seem to be on their side.

It was against this backdrop, and taking into account his poor personal poll ratings, that Sigmar Gabriel realised he could not successfully lead the SPD into this year’s election campaign. Few, however could have foreseen the spectacular effects of Gabriel’s decision to hand over his responsibilities to Martin Schulz. SPD poll numbers immediately went through the roof: up five percentage points in the first week, up 12 percentage points within Martin Schulz’s first month. And not only was the SPD going up, in parallel Merkel’s Christian Democrats also went down. By the end of February several pollsters, for the first time in many years, had the SPD ahead of the Christian Democrats.

A huge and sudden tidal wave seemed to be sweeping the German political scene. Young and old people in their thousands started to join the SPD as new party members. Pundits tried to make sense of the phenomenon, musing about amazing ‘St Martin’ who seemed to be able to walk on water, while Angela Merkel suddenly found herself depicted as ‘tired’: a ‘spent force’ on her way out.

Meanwhile Christian Democrats were showing clear signs of panic, as the seemingly unstoppable ‘Schulz-train’ (Schulz-Zug) was picking up speed by the hour. One conclusion seemed inescapable: Martin Schulz would be the next German chancellor. The candidate himself was convinced of this, so were his party, the media and even Schulz’s political opponents. German social democracy was back big time!

Except that it wasn’t. Before long, things once again started to go downhill for Schulz and the SPD. Ahead of them were three Landtagswahlen (state elections), the first in tiny Saarland on 28 March, the second in northern Schleswig-Holstein on 7 May and the third in massive North Rhine-Westphalia, Schulz’s home state, on 14 May. The Schulz campaign clearly saw all three elections as opportunities to build up even more momentum. Their implicit – event explicit – theory was that a kind of perpetual movement would set in: In Saarland on the French border, the SPD would topple the sitting Christian Democratic Ministerpräsident, after which the unstoppable Schulz-Zug would speed on to impressive victories in Schleswig-Holstein and, even more importantly, in North Rhine-Westphalia, whose 18 million inhabitants constitute one fifth of the German population. “When we win in NRW that means the SPD will become the strongest party in Germany”, Martin Schulz confidently predicted in a campaign speech, “and I will become Bundeskanzler”.

It would have been worth remembering though that, in Germany, regional elections more often than not are decided in regional terms: It is the local politicians, issues, and political performances that matter most. Martin Schulz, however, chose to tie his own electoral success very closely to his party’s expected successes in these three regional elections. Winning them would ‘prove’ that he would become chancellor.

Unfortunately for the Social Democrats and Schulz, none of these expected, even taken-for-granted, victories ever happened. Saarland was a non-starter, and since everything in the Schulz campaign was about momentum and inevitability, the disruption of that momentum brought the whole Schulz-Zug to an early halt. The SPD went on to lose the elections both in Schleswig Holstein and in North Rhine-Westphalia. The loss of NRW, in particular, hurt Schulz immensely. It is plain to see that something has snapped. Something is broken. St Martin’s magic has lost its appeal and a Social Democratic victory now looks far from inevitable.

And that is the story of St Martin’s crusade so far. What will happen next? First, Martin Schulz will find it hard to regain some of his credibility as a respectable contender for the title of German Federal Chancellor. For the time being the wheels have come off. His confidence is gone. The belief is gone. The party’s backbone seems to have been badly bruised.

To be sure, in terms of poll numbers the SPD is not – at least not yet – back where everything started when Martin Schulz first came to the rescue. Latest polls have the SPD at around 26 per cent – still 5 or 6 points up compared to pre-Schulz times under Sigmar Gabriel. Without the frantic 100 day Schulz intermezzo this state of affairs would be considered a remarkable success for the SPD. But of course this is not how the 26 per cent figure is being interpreted now – which is an important reason to predict that the SPD may not have reached rock bottom yet. The disappointed party could further deflate. What certainly looks unlikely now (if not impossible) is a Martin Schulz chancellorship.

So why did things go so wrong? We suggest that six main reasons must be considered:

First, the Schulz campaign believed too much in its own hype – an understandable mistake, but clearly one that needs to be avoided at all costs.

Second, the Schulz campaign misinterpreted the three regional elections this spring as referendums on Martin Schulz, when in fact they were regional decisions largely determined by regional political issues and the merits of candidates in the respective Bundesländer.

Third, ahead of the Saarland election the SPD failed to appreciate that openly pondering the possibility of a ‘red-red-green’ coalition including the far-left populist party Die Linke might help the Christian Democrats to aggressively mobilize ‘anti-communist’ conservative voters. Precisely this kind of backlash happened on election day. With regard to the Bundestag election this leaves the SPD in an inconvenient double bind: Either they definitely rule out Die Linke as a possible governing partner – and potentially end up without a much-needed parliamentary support base for a left-of-centre government; or they signal that a red-red-green government is still on the cards – and invite the Christian Democrats to unleash a full-blown campaign against a possible ‘popular front’.

Fourth, and more fundamentally, the Schulz campaign misinterpreted the overall mood of the German electorate. The Social Democrats’ rallying cry since the arrival of Martin Schulz has been: “more social justice”. To be sure, soziale Gerechtigkeit is always important in Germany, and polls show that a majority of people believe there is too much injustice in Germany. But with unemployment down and growth up, the SPD’s pitch does not quite resonate with the main concern prevalent in German society today. What people primarily long for in this ‘age of anxiety’ are conditions characterised by security, safety, stability, reliability, predictability, and protection of the status quo. This desire doubtless has a social justice dimension. But it encompasses much more. The overall question people are asking in Germany is: “Who will keep us safe and sound in an increasingly dangerous world?”

This fifth reason leads straight back to Angela Merkel. Of course the chancellor’s stock in terms of ‘security’, ‘predictability’ etc. fell during the great refugee crisis of 2015/16 (though she gained kudos with progressives who would, however, not vote for her party). Endless infighting within Germany’s Christian party family over refugee and migration issues certainly did not help the chancellor either. However, for the duration of election season, Germany’s two conservative Christian parties traditionally suspend their internal divisions. Little surprise, then, that Angela Merkel’s severest foe, CSU-leader and Bavarian premier Horst Seehofer, has now taken to praising the chancellor’s virtues.

Sixth, add to that the terrifying Trump chaos, Brexit, the Le Pen threat in France, recent terror attacks as well as unsolved crises around the Mediterranean and beyond. The deeply worrying landscape of international politics these days further helps to make Angela Merkel look like a solid rock in a dangerously raging sea, and also helps to explain why the rise of right wing populism seems to have been halted in Germany at least for the time being.

These factors matter. On the other hand there are still 125 days left until the election. Many Germans have not yet made up their minds, and all sorts of developments or events could still sway them one way or another. Martin Schulz and the SPD have proved earlier this year that Germany’s Social Democrats are capable of staging remarkable and surprising comebacks. Could the Schulz-train pick up steam again, after all?

In order to regain the initiative the SPD will have to rapidly leave the massive inner-party unrest after the lost Länder elections behind and change parts of its strategy. Schulz should resist the pressure of media outlets insisting he should get more specific on policies. Instead of nervously announcing one reform plan after the other, Gerhard Schröder’s famous campaign slogan of 1998 should be the guideline: “We won’t do everything differently, but we will do a lot of things better.” The SPD must embody stability and solidity as much as the Merkel-led CDU does. Therefore, it should link its social justice narrative closely to a notion of security – the promise to provide protection in social and economic terms, but also with regard to public security. It is good that the newly published draft for the election manifesto contains a tough stance on law-and-order issues such as the controversial issue of deportation of rejected delinquent asylum seekers.

Yet continuity and prudence alone will not do the trick. At the same time, the SPD must continue to prove that it is an interesting, creative, modern party. For example, rather than discussing social justice in traditional terms alone – wages, redistribution measures and pensions – Martin Schulz could start a debate on how the economic foundations of our social security system can be maintained in a society on the brink of a digital economy. This directly leads to further pressing issues: In what ways do we have to adapt our welfare state to the new challenges? How can we empower people to cope with the digital world? And how do we assure that remote regions are not left behind? Here, again, the draft election manifesto provides some good analysis and ideas as a starting point for the Schulz campaign.

We believe embodying a balance of stability and modernity is Martin Schulz’s best chance to reach out to the centre ground of German society in the coming months. Egged on by Horst Seehofer’s CSU and hardliners in her own party, Angela Merkel’s CDU has recently been shifting to the right, thus leaving more space in the centre for the SPD. It is this middle ground where most voters feel at home politically and socially. They see themselves confronted with new forms of social injustices, be it bad schools, insecure jobs, or the problems of lone parents. Here lies the broad centre of society the Social Democrats must address – simultaneously leaving their natural coalition partner, the Green party, enough space vis-a-vis voter groups concerned with civil rights or ecological issues.

Incidentally, this is precisely the centre of German society Martin Schulz addressed so convincingly in the early stages of his candidacy – with a determined pro-European stance, a vigorous defence of liberal democracy, and with real compassion for “the people who work hard and play by the rules” (some of whom might have turned to the populists if it weren’t for Martin Schulz). The Schulz campaign ought to do everything it can to create occasions where their candidate can demonstrate his accessibility and down-to-earth personality – features that distinguish him strongly from the aloof demeanour of Chancellor Merkel.

It is due to Martin Schulz that more than 16,000 predominantly young people have joined the SPD since 24 January. They and many others are willing to support a modern and European-minded Social Democratic party during the election campaign, which convincingly promises to take care both of their socio-economic and security concerns. The initial Schulz-mania is over. Yet, for the SPD, the prospects still look much better than at the beginning of the year. Yes, the clock is ticking for Martin Schulz and German social democracy, but if they get their act together, the Schulz-train may yet be able to reach its desired destination of the chancellory.