Schulz versus Merkel The Revitalization of Democracy in Germany

The surprise news that former European Parliament president Martin Schulz will run against Angela Merkel to become Germany's next chancellor has rekindled interest in politics in the country. After two lackluster elections in 2009 and 2013, it also fosters new hope for a liberal democracy in crisis.

Crowds have been flocking to political appearances by Martin Schulz.

Crowds have been flocking to political appearances by Martin Schulz.

A DER SPIEGEL Editorial by

Respirators provide emergency breathing assistance to patients running out of oxygen. Martin Schulz is currently playing the role of respirator for German politics. He is invigorating democracy, regenerating long-absent excitement for his party, the Social Democrats (SPD), and fueling hopes of a change in government. After 11 years, there is finally a realistic alternative to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who seems so tired and listless recently that it looks as though even she thinks it has been too long.

We are experiencing a shift. Germany is transitioning from a period of political demobilization to one of mobilization, and that is good news. Merkel never wanted the German people to become particularly active politically. Instead she sought to calm people, assuage their fears and lull them to sleep -- to deprive democracy of political oxygen in the form of debates, emotion and ideas. Voter turnout fell.

Reawakening Democracy

It was Merkel herself who put an end to this period of torpor with her refugee policies, and the mobilization period began. The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party quickly became a recepticle for fears, resentment and disappointment and the debate became more lively if, at times, unsavory. Suddenly, democracy was enlivened, as if awakened from a deep sleep - but most of the action was on the far right -- and liberal democracy fell into crisis.

Thanks to Schulz, Germany is now experiencing a shift within the shift. His candidacy is ushering in the second phase of mobilization, this time at the center of society and on the left wing. The enthusiasm he has sparked has long been missing. Schulz, of course, isn't particularly charismatic nor is he a bright beacon of light personifying the anti-establishment. On the contrary, he has played a significant role in the European Union, and in the German SPD party, for years. He's just as down to earth as Merkel -- more traditional than avant garde.

Merkel Seems Burned-Out

What differentiates him most from Merkel is his passion. Schulz has a true passion for Europe and he has always fought passionately on behalf of this challenging project. And it's a safe bet that he will also approach other projects with the same kind of passion. Merkel, on the other hand, who has always been reserved in her statements, appears burned out these days. She made two appearances to announce her 2017 chancellor candidacy - once on her own and one last week together with Horst Seehofer, the head of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union with which it shares power at the national level. Seehofer famously delayed his party's endorsement of Merkel's candidacy in protest over her refugee policees. And Merkel looked tired, even exhausted, during both announcements and had trouble making clear what she actually wants to do with a fourth term in office.

Given that voters should be able to expect a chancellor to show enthusiasm for her work, both appearances were a disgrace - also for democracy. Who wants to become politically active when even the German chancellor makes such uninspired appearances?

After more than 11 years on the job, Merkel is fatigued. Voters have also become tired.

After more than 11 years on the job, Merkel is fatigued. Voters have also become tired.

Schulz is also a gift to the Social Democrats because the party finally has a person in place who shows an unwavering desire to be in power. The party's chancellor candidates in the last two elections -- Frank-Walter Steinmeier (2009) and Peer Steinbrück (2013) -- all appeared for various reasons to be inhibited, hesitating and skeptical. Sigmar Gabriel, who recently stepped down as party chief and had initially planned to run as the SPD's chancellor candidate, exhibited the same characteristics. It didn't feel right and voters noticed.

Fresh and Hungry for the Job

Schulz, in contrast, appears to be as fresh as he is hungry for the job, and SPD voters seem to like him. When a candidate and a party can succeed in coming together like that, then it is a win-win situation for democracy - because it presents a real alternative.

So far, Schulz has been drumming up voter enthusiasm based entirely on his personality and has yet to offer any concrete political proposals. Ultimately, of course, that will have to change. There are, after all, two stages in the way people react to surprises like Schulz's candidacy: with emotion first, but then with questions, with rationality. Schulz is still enjoying the first stage, the more pleasant one. But once the cheering dies down, he will have to come forward with his plans for Germany - the refugee policies he will pursue, how he actually plans to achieve the fairness he has been touting and whether or not new laws are needed for domestic security in response to the risk of further terrorist attacks.

When he does, it's likely he will put some people off. Besides, in politics, contradictions, inconsistencies and affairs are always lurking somewhere around the corner. Schulz still has to demonstrate whether he is appropriate for the job.

Paradoxically, Merkel's hopes lie partially with Donald Trump. If his administration continues to stumble, or if things get even worse, then German voters may begin thinking that Merkel, with her steadfastness and experience, might be the better choice for chancellor after all. German life would continue to live with a limited supply of political oxygen.

At this juncture, however, it's not the ultimate winner that matters most. What counts right now is that, after two extremely lackluster election seasons, we are looking at the prospect of an exciting campaign. A democracy isn't just about results - it's also about how we get to them, the process. A good, passionate election campaign could help to free liberal democracy from its current state of crisis.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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Inglenda2 02/16/2017
1. Can you revitalise what has never been?
It may be true, that Schulz has given a push towards a new interest in German politics. What certainly not true is, that this will mean more democracy for the country. Together with Juncker, this man did all he could to stop the EU from changing, from a dictatorial bureaucratic organisation, to a free co-operative of European states. Germany is currently run by the political parties, for the political parties, not by the people, through the people, for the people. It is unlikely that someone who has failed to uphold democracy in Europe, will now be able to introduce it to the SPD. The only hope for Germany, is that neither he, or Mrs. Merkel will find enough support to form a government. Whoever does take over, will almost certainly need years, to clean up the political mess left behind by a series of CDU and SPD governments.
Cal_105 02/16/2017
It is up to the German people to make the decision. They are being taking for a ride by their political elite. If they like what the "Liberal Democrats" have given them then they can only reward them with another term, but if they believe that the "social paradise" envisioned for them is an illusion, then they will send these elites to the trash bin of history. Your leaders have neglected the German defense and they have brought hundreds of thousands of alien refugees and immigrants into your country. German is spending 1.2% of its GDP on its defense and the NATO goal is 2.0%, but that is not really enough for total security. At least twice that is the minimal amount. As an American I can tell you that we respect the German people and we will help defend your country in times of need, but Americans are asking the question why should the US take the major role in the defends of German and Europe when Merkel recently bragged that Germany has surpassed China as the second largest economy in the world, and she also bragged that Germany had a trade surplus of 600 billion dollars. Where is this 600 billion going? To pay for more social programs and more immigrants and refugees. Americans taxpayers have been on the hook for the defense of Europe since 1945. We have not complained when the going was tough. but it is getting harder to justify the amount we are spending on defense for our country and for others when others do not seen to feel the same urgency to defend themselves with outlays of resources. Americans ask why should we defend people who appear to not want to defend themselves. Are they serious about their defense or not. This goes for other countries such as South Korea, and Japan also. Americans feel that is is time for Germany the larger economy and country in Europe to assume its rightful place as the primary leader of Europe. With Germany as the leader, other European countries will rally around them, and American will stand up for you also when needed. If German takes the easy road, I am not sure how long they can depend on the US to defend them.
mike.gardiner 02/17/2017
3. The Revitalization of Democracy in Germany
Good article. I also think that Merkel has been good but needs a break, and Schulz would revitalize the EU. Perhaps he'll ask Australia and New Zealand whether they want to join the EU. I hope so.
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