Angela Merkel might be the most powerful woman in the world. A preacher’s daughter who was raised in Communist East Germany, Merkel has been Chancellor of Germany for eleven years. Until recently, she seemed well-positioned to win a fourth term in her country’s national election on September 24, 2017.
Merkel now faces the first serious challenge to her control of the highest political office in Germany. And while right-wing groups are gaining popularity across Europe, including in Germany’s southern neighbors Austria and Switzerland, this threat comes from the opposite side of the political spectrum.
Martin Schulz is the former President of the European Parliament, the European Union’s directly-elected legislature. Without spending even a day serving in the German Parliament, the Bundestag, he has now launched his campaign to topple the reign of Mutti, a nickname for Merkel that means “Mother” in German.
Labeled a Socialist, leftist version of Donald Trump, Schulz appeals to Germans who feel excluded from his country’s generally successful economy. In contrast to Merkel, who holds a PhD in physical chemistry, Schulz did not finish high school. Rather than attending university, he trained as a bookseller and ran a bookshop for several years.
“[Schulz] presents himself as one of the common people,” Matthias Moehl, an analyst for the German political website election.de, told The Politic.
Schulz is the Chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Germany, which was barely competitive with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) in the last two elections. He has since revived the Socialist Party, which, despite its prominence throughout its 150-year-long history, now occupies a junior role in the coalition led by Merkel.
A candidate with no national political experience might expect to stand little chance against a seasoned leader. But as Donald Trump’s victory proved, lack of experience is no longer an insurmountable political barrier. In fact, it might bolster the SPD’s chances in the upcoming Bundestagswahl, the German federal election.
The emergence of the political outsider Schulz injects energy into the SPD, a once-lethargic party. With Schulz at the helm, the SPD is more likely to oust Merkel than it was under the leadership of well-established politicians like Peer Steinbrück and Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Schulz is not truly anti-establishment, given his position in the European Parliament. But his lack of Bundestag credentials combined with his leftist platform and personal background is enough to make many Germans see him as the alternative to Merkel’s regime.
Schulz speaks publicly about his struggle with alcoholism. For those frustrated with Germany’s path but unwilling to support the extremes of Die Linke (The Left) or the right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), he is a very relatable figure. He is building the coalition he needs to provide a viable center-left alternative to Merkel and the CDU/CSU.
“[Schulz] was…not on the radar of the media and the people in the last twenty years,” Moehl said. This adds a fresh, exciting dimension uncommon in a leader of a major German political party, especially when compared to Merkel and her long tenure as chancellor.
The media calls his surprising popularity the “Schulz Effect.” It has contributed to rapid gains for the SPD in pre-election polls. Two recent surveys found the CDU/CSU and SPD in a dead heat heading into the summer campaigning season.
According to Moehl’s analysis of recent polls, “Martin Schulz is a reason for many of the SPD voters to vote for the SPD.”
The attention surrounding Schulz launched the SPD into the spotlight, but the party’s long-term outlook remains uncertain. Any momentum that Schulz and the SPD have now, whether from the Schulz Effect or from general discontent with Merkel’s chancellorship, will have to continue until the election in September. Moehl doubts the excitement will last.
“His program right now is Martin Schulz, and nothing else,” said Moehl.
Results from a March election in the western state of Saarland, Schulz’s first test as federal party leader, were poor for Schulz’s party. The SPD was comfortably bested by Merkel’s CDU, 41 percent to 30 percent, despite previous polls predicting a tight race. If this result reflects broader unease with the SPD across Germany, the party’s chances in September do not look promising.
To Moehl, this disappointment demonstrates that the Schulz Effect “doesn’t really carry the SPD too far.”
“If people are more or less content with how things are, there is a good chance that they will keep the chancellor who is in power…regardless of person or party,” said Moehl.
This incumbency advantage is likely the biggest obstacle Schulz would need to overcome in the chancellor’s race. While American politicians frequently campaign on a platform of change, Moehl argued that German politics is fundamentally different.
“Germans don’t like change that much,” he said.
Tiemo Woelken, a member of the European Parliament (MEP) and a member of Schulz’s SPD, disagreed.
“Merkel has sought to maintain political power without clear discussions on where she stands,” said Woelken in an interview with The Politic. “This works for a certain amount of time, and the past elections have shown that this works for a long time. But in a time where there’s always more questions, like what Germany’s position is in Europe, or the relationship between Germany and the U.S., or the migrant policy, the people want clearer answers. Merkel has not provided these.”
Schulz presents a viable alternative to Merkel. Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, Vice-President and Executive Director of the think tank German Marshall Fund of the United States, analyzed Schulz’s candidacy in an interview with The Politic.
“With Schulz, Germans got choice; now they have the choice between two serious candidates. The question is whether they want choice or whether they want change,” Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff explained. “Choice they’ve got, change they can get, but it’s unclear whether they do want it.”
Schulz will continue his campaign in the remaining state elections of 2017 before the national elections take place. Elections this May in the northwestern state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, will be an important test for Schulz’s SPD.
“State elections always have a limited meaning, although you’d have to say North Rhine-Westphalia is one of the two or three of the sixteen states that play on the national stage, and North Rhine-Westphalia does play that role as a bellwether state. It did play that role in previous elections, because it is contested, and it has a psychological effect,” said Kleine-Brockhoff.
As the important state election approaches, Schulz’s campaign can count on strong support on social media. Using MEGA (“Make Europe Great Again”) as a satirical play on Donald Trump’s campaign slogan and a subreddit called “r/the_Schulz” mirroring Trump’s “r/the_donald,” Schulz supporters are rallying support for the passionate campaign fight.
With a meme to match every Trump meme, whether it be “High Energy” changed to “Hohe Energie” or “No Brakes” changed to “Keine Bremsen,” online supporters are using the phrases that helped launch Trump into office to get their anti-Trump into the Bundeskanzleramt. Both the mainstream German media and Schulz himself have recognized Redditors’ contributions to the campaign.
Supporters view Schulz as a return to an older, more left-wing SPD, as opposed to the party’s recent centrist approach.
“SPD partisans are being reminded of another Social Democrat, Gerhard Schröder—later chancellor of this country—who one time in his career, when the capital was still Bonn, was looking from the outside into the grounds of the chancellery, and he was hanging onto the fence and rattling the fence saying ‘I want in here,’” said Kleine-Brockhoff.
Even if it does not win an absolute majority in the Bundestag, the SPD could find itself at the helm of Germany’s next government. A coalition with left-wing Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (The Greens) and the liberal Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP), feasible given their ideological proximity, would send Merkel out of office. Another option entails the SPD continuing its present coalition with the CDU/CSU, except with Schulz in charge instead of Merkel. But any chance at a Schulz chancellery in such a coalition would likely require his party to poll higher than Merkel’s.
Schulz and the SPD have resonated with millions of German voters by resisting the trend across Europe towards right-wing populism. AfD, the largest right-wing party in Germany, is polling at around ten percent for the upcoming Bundestagswahl, though it has had better results in some recent state elections.
“It looks like the AfD is losing support, and they might even fail to clear the five percent threshold necessary to get seats in the parliament,” Moehl said.
After Brexit and the rise of Euroscepticism across the continent, many moderates see a vote for Schulz as a vote for the European Union. An SPD victory would be a final blow to any talk of a potential AfD-supported “Gexit.”
Given the long-standing German distrust of right-wing populism after World War II, Schulz is likely to attract many voters who are disaffected with Merkel’s policies but unwilling to vote for a more extreme party.
“Martin Schulz is not a part of the current government and has been involved with European politics rather than German national politics,” said Woelken. “Schulz is therefore disconnected from the current Merkel coalition government, which has lost touch with the voters.”
While he acknowledged that it is nearly impossible to predict September’s results this far out, Woelken said that he thinks Schulz has a good shot.
“I think that Martin Schulz, as a candidate for the SPD in the Bundestagswahl, actually has a good chance to take the chancellery, and we’re seeing that in the polls,” he said. “Now we’re seeing the poll numbers stabilize, with more people voting SPD with Martin Schulz as the candidate. The people have told the SPD that this choice of a candidate was correct.”
With five months remaining until the election, it seems that any potential SPD takeover of the Bundestag will come at the heels of the Schulz Effect. Even without a final victory, Martin Schulz will have brought the SPD much-needed momentum.
“The Schulz Effect has mobilized the party. People within the party structure are excited that there is actually somebody who is ambitious, who is not shy about saying what he wants, which is the chancellery,” Kleine-Brockhoff said.
The last time the SPD was in control, Europe was only a few years into the Eurozone experiment. There was no refugee crisis, no debt crisis, and little debate on whether countries would remain in the European Union at all. Now, 12 years later, it might be Schulz’s opportunity to prove that he and the SPD can run a global powerhouse.