A Tectonic Shift in the German Election Meet the Man Who Will Challenge Merkel
Part 2: Fresh Wind in the Sails of the SPD
Of course his detractors will now likely attempt to characterize him as the embodiment of the increasingly hated EU functionary. And the passion with which he has fought for European convergence could also now be used against him. In that sense, despite all the enthusiasm for him, Schulz has also remained a realist. He often likes to cite a line from a friend, the German director Wim Wenders: "The administration of Europe has become the image of Europe." Anyone wanting to save the project must change the EU, warns Schulz. He says the community needs to refocus on the essential issues -- things that countries can do better as part of a bloc than as individual nation-states: climate policy, trade relations, migration issues, currency matters and the fight against speculation, for example. "I don't want a European super-state," he says.
Schulz's past in Brussels is now likely to undergo greater scrutiny. For example, his vehement championing of the highly controversial idea of euro bonds -- borrowing for individual states that would be backed by the entire euro zone. Jens Spahn, the rising star on the national executive committee of Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, says he doesn't know much about Schulz. "The only thing I know is that he wants to communitize debts in Europe." Schulz's chummy relationship with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker could also be a burden. To help Juncker, he once prevented the formation of a committee of inquiry in the European Parliament.
Last Tuesday, leaders within the Christian Democrats already began discussing a rough strategy for dealing with the new candidate. They like to take advantage of the fact that Schulz has never held a government position in Germany -- neither a post in the federal government nor a seat in parliament. "He is entirely inexperienced in German federal politics and is unfamiliar with the issues," says a leading member of the party's parliamentary group. "We will point that out over and over again."
Schulz wants to counter such criticism by pointing to the 11 years he spent as mayor of Würselen. There, he says, he gained everyday experience about what is important in the lives of the people. "Everyday life is not the Bundestag," Schulz says, referring to the national parliament. "Everyday life is at city hall. And I know it better than many colleagues in Berlin."
How Different Is He from Merkel?
What will be decisive for his candidacy is whether he can successfully run as the SPD's candidate while making clear that he had little or nothing to do with SPD policies of recent decades. The party has, after all, been a part of every German government since 1998, with the exception of one term. The party also has the greatest number of the country's state governors. How will it be possible to credibly criticize the situation in the country? How can he make it clear that a Chancellor Schulz would change many things?
Within the leadership group of the CDU in parliament, people are pointing out that Schulz's political positions are unlikely to diverge very far from Merkel's. In areas where she has weaknesses, his are sometimes even worse. They point to his uncritical enthusiasm for the EU, for Greece's rescue during the euro crisis and, most importantly, to the issue that stands above all of them at the moment: Germany's refugee policies.
The chancellor may be under more criticism than ever before due to her open-border policies during the refugee crisis, but it's hardly an issue with which Schulz's SPD stands to profit. The candidate's own personal convictions will prohibit him from criticizing Merkel for humanitarian decisions she's made. "What the refugees bring us is more valuable than gold," Schulz said in June during a speech he gave at the University of Heidelberg. "It is the conviction, yes, the unwavering belief in the dream of Europe." In contrast to Gabriel, Schulz will not succumb to the temptation of borrowing the rhetoric of CSU leader Horst Seehofer, the most outspoken critic of the chancellor's refugee policies.
His extremely lively temperament could also be a hazard to his candidacy. Schulz has a strong penchant for making off-the-cuff remarks and his choice of words can often be quite loose, to say the least. During one of his trips, he yelled,"My constant lack of sleep makes me a little crazy," down an entire airplane. In another situation, he apologized for a somewhat coarse comment by saying, "I'm just a little proletarian man." When he gets worked up, and this can happen pretty quickly, even heads of state are disparaged as "eggheads," "sleepy heads," or as a "dumb ass."
He seldom means these verbal outbursts seriously. But even former chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück had to learn the hard way that there is little room for irony when campaigning to become Germany's leader. That's why Schulz has taken the step of appointing his staff, who have been with him for years, to what he calls his "supervisory board" -- especially his chief of staff at SPD headquarters in Berlin, Markus Engels. He already asked his staff years ago to begin looking after him. It doesn't always work, but he does seem to be faring better.
Sigmar Gabriel, the very man who stepped aside so he could run, poses another risk. It's obvious that a power shuffle is going on within the party these days and that Gabriel has seen his influence diminished considerably. But as foreign minister and vice chancellor he will nevertheless remain a presence -- and continue to be unpredictable.
As pleased as Schulz is to become head of the SPD and the party's chancellor candidate, he has also been stunned by his supposed friend's behavior in recent months. Ultimately, the decision he made a week ago Saturday was a psycho-drama -- one that left many people feeling deceived by Gabriel.
At the beginning of September, two public opinion researchers paid a visit to Gabriel. He actually had plenty of reasons to be in a good mood at the time. One day earlier, the SPD had won elections in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.
But the news they delivered to Gabriel that day was sobering. The pollsters presented him with unfavorable popularity ratings. Their message was clear: Gabriel's credibility was so battered that not even his charisma and strength as a speaker could help the party regain lost ground among voters. The visit left Gabriel highly frustrated and he canceled his attendance at a party held by the SPD's official newspaper and instead had himself driven to his home in Goslar.
Doubts about his viability had also been growing within his party. At the end of September, members of the state chapter of the SPD in Lower-Saxony -- where support for Gabriel should be greatest since his constituency is there -- met. But that evening they ostracized Gabriel, one after the other saying almost the same thing: that the SPD chair could not win the election.
Gabriel, who is far more sensitive than his gruff exterior might suggest, struggled with the criticism. He asked Schulz to come to Goslar and the two spent several hours talking. If the decision had been made that day, it would have been simple: Gabriel could have stepped down. But Gabriel didn't want to give up -- in part because Schulz at the point was doing little to hide his own ambitions.
During the autumn, the European Parliament president paid frequent visits to Germany, speaking at political events for his party across the country, where he was well-received. At a release party in Berlin, he also presented a biography that had been written about him.
The party boss reacted with irritation. It annoyed him that Schulz was campaigning on his own behalf. If Gabriel were to eschew his chancellor candidacy, then it needed to seem like he was doing so voluntarily. Besides, at the time, things weren't going badly for the SPD head. On Nov. 16, Foreign Minister Steinmeier was named as the joint candidate for the CDU, CSU and SPD for the office of the German president. The move to name Steinmeier for the largely ceremonial post was viewed as a defeat for Merkel, but a major triumph for Gabriel.
At this point it had become clear to him that the foreign minister post would be free, at which point his plan to switch to the Foreign Ministry rather than run for chancellor became clearer. Objectively seen, it was the only realistic option for Gabriel to survive the 2017 election politically.
Barely two weeks later, Schulz flew to Berlin to talk to Gabriel. SPD head Gabriel pushed Schulz to finally make a decision, saying he couldn't be president of the European Parliament, German foreign minister and the SPD's chancellor candidate at the same time.
Schulz already suspected his prospects in Brussels were fading, but he told Gabriel that his preference would be to remain president of the European Parliament. Gabriel didn't make any pledges to him in the meeting about possible alternatives if he were unable to continue to hold that post. Instead, Gabriel let Schulz wriggle -- his way of taking revenge. By this point, any vestiges of friendship between the two had ended. "Something fractured between Sigmar and Martin on that night," says one member of the SPD presidium
Those were the weeks in which Gabriel told his deputy party head Olaf Scholz, who is also the mayor of Hamburg, that Scholz would have to become the party's chancellor candidate. "You have to do it."
On Nov. 21, SPD party leaders approved Gabriel's proposal to delay naming a chancellor candidate until the end of January. Just a few days later it would become clear that Schulz's political career in Brussels was ending. Schulz now wanted clarity from Gabriel. At the end of November, the two flew together to Vienna. But during the flight, they only managed to discuss their differences. Gabriel did hint at what he might do. He also guaranteed Schulz a job, saying if he didn't become the chancellor candidate that he could become foreign minister.
Gabriel's view was that no decision should be made in December, a time when people were more focused on the holidays. Gabriel also wanted to take advantage of the holidays for a hospital stay.
Shortly before Christmas, Gabriel checked into a special clinic in the state of Hesse. The ensuing operation caused Gabriel to lose 13 kilograms within a period of only a few weeks. News of his surgery only became public because Gabriel didn't make any public appearances after the terrorist attack on a Berlin Christmas market on Dec. 19.
Many within the SPD believed the operation had been part of preparations for an upcoming chancellor candidacy. Gabriel had already changed advertising agencies for the election and had also agreed to be the subject of an extended profile by Germany's main public broadcaster. After the attack in Berlin he also wrote a seven-page policy paper on domestic security.
On Jan. 3, Gabriel met reporters with SPIEGEL for an interview in Goslar. The SPD head was relaxed, in the mood to talk and had lots of time. It was obvious that he was at peace with himself. When asked if he knew who the chancellor candidate for his party would be, he answered, "Of course." But he also made it clear that he wouldn't answer the question.
On Jan. 10, the SPD leadership met at a hotel at the Düsseldorf airport. Gabriel could sense that even though it was a new year, one thing hadn't changed: There were still massive reservations within the party about his candidacy. The verdict of planners at KNSK was that "the people no longer believe the SPD." Hamburg election planners also queried focus groups, which confirmed the same disastrous results that had been presented to Gabriel back in September.
By mid-January, it had become clear to all that a decision would have to be made within a matter of days. Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel, the head of the SPD state chapter in Hesse, called Gabriel. His colleague Ralf Stegner in Schleswig-Holstein also reported to Gabriel about the terrible mood among the party base. Achim Post, head of the party group in the state Legislature of North Rhine-Westphalia had long told his party boss that members of his constituency had serious doubts about Gabriel.
In that period, Gabriel and Schulz tried to meet on several occasions, but something always prevented it from happening. Finally, a week ago Saturday, the two met in the city of Montabaur, where Gabriel had participated in a protest against the right wing. Schulz had traveled from his home in Würselen near Aachen. Schulz assumed that Gabriel would be offering him the post of foreign minister.
'You're the Candidate'
Gabriel opened the conversation by saying, "I'm not going to do it. You're the candidate." They spent two hours discussing how to proceed from there. They talked about Gabriel's shift to the Foreign Ministry and who would replace him in the Economics Ministry. Perhaps most difficult to both, they also agreed to maintain absolute silence about the decision. Gabriel wanted time to inform his two most important deputies -- North Rhine-Westphalia Governor Hannelore Kraft and Hamburg Mayor Scholz, as well as Thomas Oppermann, the head of the SPD's group in parliament.
The phones rang nonstop the next morning. Schulz also canceled a planned meeting that evening with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The two had wanted to discuss details of Schulz's apparent transition to the post of foreign minister. Gabriel called Kraft, Scholz and Oppermann. Scholz proved to be the only person to express any cautious reservations. But Gabriel tried to play them down. On Sunday, he invited reporters with the German magazine Stern to his home for an interview in which he explained his reasons for stepping down as party head. Gabriel hadn't even told Schulz the day before about his planned interview -- Schulz only learned about it after its publication. Even Gabriel's press secretary Tobias Dünow knew nothing of it.
When parliament convened for a week of sessions on Monday, the rumor mill was already running at full speed. Members of parliament could sense the possibility of surprise news. Schulz then canceled his participation in a meeting between members of parliament with the SPD, the Left Party and the Greens.
On Tuesday, shortly before a meeting of the SPD's parliamentary group, Gabriel informed then-Foreign Minister Steinmeier. After that, events took a course of their own. During the meeting of the parliamentary group, Oppermann issued a routine statement. He didn't want to comment on the question of who would be the party's chancellor candidate, allowing only, "Allow yourself to be surprised."
Then he retreated to his office. At the almost the exact same time, a news agency announced Gabriel's resignation, citing the cover story in Stern. When Gabriel found out about it, he stormed into Oppermann's office and said: "What shit!" Oppermann kept his cool: "Then I'll keep things very brief after the greetings and you explain in detail your interview and your reasons."
That was it. The party fraction said its goodbyes to Gabriel with standing ovations. Later, at the SPD's national headquarters, where the main party leaders were meeting at 5 p.m., the applause was more sparse. Oppermann became far more forthright than usual. "The whole thing is untenable," he said to Gabriel. "You can't treat committees this way." Others nodded in approval.
The chancellor then found out about his resignation via text message. At the time, Foreign Minister Steinmeier, who is about to become president, was presenting himself as a candidate to the Christian Democrats' parliamentary group. Merkel showed him the text message on her phone.
She began to realize at that moment that her script for the coming federal election might be out of date and that a new one might now be taking its place.
Inside the SPD, at least, there is now renewed faith that the election will go well. For the moment, the change at the top has at least brought an end to the sense of chronic despondency and impassioned self-pity that had recently permeated the party. "With his combative nature and his passion, Schulz will mobilize our members and voters, because they believe him, that he is not deluding them," says Sören Bartol, deputy chairman of the SPD's parliamentary group. "I had no idea that mobile phones had so many emojis," says lawmaker Johannes Fechner. "And all have their mouths turned upward."
Colleagues who had feared the loss of their seat just a few days earlier are now dreaming of winning more than 30 percent of the vote. That may be unrealistic, but hope is the medicine the SPD currently needs.
Last Wednesday evening, 40 party members came to the meeting of the local SPD group in Sterkrade-Nord, in Oberhausen, including Karl Kaminski, 66 years old. Kaminski, who had spent more than half of his life in the SPD, had put up posters, distributed flyers, fought and suffered. With Schulz, he says his optimism has also returned. "Finally someone with balls," he says. "Someone who opens his mouth." Fellow party member Walburga Stortz says, of Europe and Trump, "things are crumbling everywhere." She says now the SPD needs a strongman as its leader. "With Martin Schulz, we finally have that man."
Michael Keller, the SPD mayor of Friedberg in Hesse, says Sigmar Gabriel was like a "cork on the bottle." On Wednesday evening, Keller and his local association welcomed SPD General Secretary Katarina Barley. In the first 24 hours after Gabriel's resignation, Barley says, they gained 250 new members. And that only includes the online registrations at SPD headquarters. "I think we will gain momentum now," Barley says.
At the meeting in Düsseldorf two and a half weeks ago, the campaign agency sent the SPD leadership a clear message: "What's decisive is the impression. The people want to see you fight."
Martin Schulz will fight, that much is clear. And the way things look right now, he won't be alone.
- Part 1: Meet the Man Who Will Challenge Merkel
- Part 2: Fresh Wind in the Sails of the SPD