A Tectonic Shift in the German Election Meet the Man Who Will Challenge Merkel
With the surprise announcement that Martin Schulz, until recently the head of the European Parliament, will be the Social Democrats' chancellor candidate this fall, the German political landscape has undergone a tectonic shift. Now Chancellor Angela Merkel must prepare for a real fight.
When SPIEGEL published a profile of Martin Schulz four years ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel took him aside at a European Union summit to tell him that she found it very interesting. Schulz beamed with pride: He was happy that the German chancellor had addressed him personally. Then he couldn't resist making a remark on his own behalf, referring to the length of the article: "I have heard that they otherwise only write seven-page profiles about chancellors of Germany."
Now Schulz himself wants to become chancellor and push Merkel out of office. People shouldn't kid themselves about his ambition. He has never hidden it -- not in the past, and certainly not in the last week. Those who have encountered him recently describe him as a happy man who is traversing the corridors of German politics as self-confidently as he might if he were already chancellor. His body language and words, in any case, leave no doubt that he will make every effort to govern Germany in the near future. "I want to become the chancellor of Germany," he says, without irony.
He recently joked to a small group that there were enough grave-markers in Angela Merkel's cemetery for vice-chancellors. He himself, he claimed, would never be buried there. That may seem megalomaniacal, given the sad state of his party, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), but the delusion might also be necessary to motivate the party. In a new Germany-wide poll conducted by public broadcaster ARD, Schulz was ranked neck-a-neck with Merkel if people were allowed to vote directly for the chancellor. Forty-one percent of respondents say they would currently vote for Schulz, just as many as for Angela Merkel. In a different poll conducted by the polling firm Infratest, the SPD gained 3 points.
In contrast to Sigmar Gabriel, better known for his struggling and dithering, Schulz radiates a confidence and hunger for power not seen within his party for a long time now. He has been on this path for a long time.
When he first ran for a seat in the European Parliament in 1994, he toured the empty plenary chamber in Strasbourg, France. At one point he sat on the president's seat and said, "I will sit here one day." When he finally acquired that seat, he fought with tooth and nail to increase the power and visibility of his parliament. "We represent 500 million people, but have the visibility of the city council of Pinneberg," he said when he took office, referring to a small Hamburg suburb. "The powerful should be afraid of this parliament," he said, with an eye to the leaders of the EU member states -- Angela Merkel, in particular. "Every bit of me wants to become chancellor."
No SPD candidate for chancellor has gone into an election with this much self-confidence and thirst for power since Gerhard Schröder, who apparently already had his eye on the chancellery as a young man. "The SPD sometimes has a skeptical relationship to power," Schröder said during a laudatory speech in October about Schulz. But Schulz, he said, was very ambitious and conscious of power. "I find it very sympathetic."
Recently, Schulz himself hadn't even expected that he would receive this opportunity. Already back in the summer, Gabriel and Schulz had decided that one of the two would become the SPD's chancellor candidate. Gabriel left open the question of whom.
Months of uncertainty followed in which Schulz vacillated between hope and frustration. His advisors were recently even making plans for interviews in which a future Foreign Minister Schulz was to present his agenda.
The drama's final act took place a week ago Saturday. Gabriel had asked Schulz to come to Montabaur, a town in Rhineland-Palatinate, so he could inform him of his decision. Schulz arrived with the expectation that he would become foreign minister, and returned shortly thereafter as the designated head of the party and its chancellor candidate. He and his campaign now have a better claim to power with the party leadership than Frank-Walter Steinmeier or Peer Steinbrück, who were subservient to the head of the party when they ran as chancellor candidates.
It's a rare occurrence when the tectonics in Berlin shift as dramatically as they did last week. Tuesday, when the news of Gabriel's resignation leaked, was one of those days. Not only because the news was surprising, which it certainly was. But especially because it changes the starting position of the 2017 election year in such a fundamental way.
For a long time it seemed as though the SPD would enter the race in a state of despondency, without self-confidence, hindered by a candidate whose image had been irreversibly damaged and whose trust among his own ranks had been exhausted. Who would put up posters and go door to door to build support for Gabriel, many members of the party found themselves asking?
With Schulz, the SPD seems at least to be rid of those concerns. The party reacted to the news of Gabriel's resignation like it had been freed. According to an ARD poll, 81 percent of SPD supporters believe that Schulz is a good candidate, along with 64 percent of all Germans surveyed.
Many of the leading politicians in the party only found out about the change through the media, which gave credence to the view that the headstrong Gabriel couldn't be depended on. Few SPD members had had the courage to honestly tell the head of the party that it wouldn't have a chance with him. The fact that Gabriel decided, after seven years of leadership of the party that he would do the SPD a big service by stepping down, was more telling in hindsight than criticisms about the way in which he announced it.
Schulz Could Change Character of Election
Inside the Chancellery, there are now fears that Schulz could shake his party out of its depression. That could change the character of the election campaign. It had thus far been Merkel's strength that she could demobilize her opponents' followers. But now she will also have to get her own people more excited. That won't be easy. Many people agree, not totally without reason, with the prediction of Horst Seehofer, the head of the Christian Democrats' (CDU) Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), that the CDU's chances of a victory after Schulz' nomination haven't exactly risen. "Now, more than ever, we have to be careful not to score on our own goal."
For the next eight months, the race will be between Schulz and Merkel, a duel between two people who have known each other for a long time. As president of the European Parliament, he complained about Merkel a lot. In 2013, at the height of the Greek crisis, he found out that 26 of 27 countries were in favor of additional financial aid for Greece. Only one was against it. He thought it was Merkel.
And when they tried to prevent him from attending negotiations over the EU Fiscal Pact, Schulz said, "I am staying seated. I am the parliament. And if they throw me out, I will sit in front of the door with a sign: 'This is Angela Merkel's understanding of democracy.'"
On the other hand, he spoke with Merkel on the phone almost every day. He was proud that he had the number of her mobile phone. The mere fact that people knew he had a direct line to the chancellor was helpful, he said. He valued her solidarity, her reliability, her knowledge of details. During the campaign, it is very unlikely he will engage in any heavy, direct attacks against Merkel. He doesn't feel the public would like that, anyway.
Banking on Merkel Fatigue
"I have been working together with Angela Merkel for longer than almost anybody outside of her party," he says. "I have been able to study her, to get to know her." He believes he has discerned an equal coolness behind her considerable charm. He also believes that he knows the mistakes that her previous challengers, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Peer Steinbrück, made. And he believes he's learned the right lessons from them. Schulz wants to emphasize his own strengths above other things in order to push Merkel out of the Chancellery. "I am advertising myself." But he also wants to concentrate on her problems: Including the disagreements between the CDU and CSU and her 11 years in office. Schulz is counting on Merkel fatigue among the country's voters.
Merkel is acting as if she doesn't particularly care if her challenger is named Gabriel or Schulz. She wants to give the impression that nothing has changed in the run-up to the election.
But Merkel knows that the SPD can awaken more curiosity and interest with Schulz at the helm than would have been possible with Gabriel. Still, most Germans still only fleetingly know Schulz, and haven't yet made a final judgment. In the most recent SPIEGEL poll, 30 percent of respondents said they didn't even know who he is.
Schulz has spent almost his entire political career in Brussels, and has never held a government position domestically. That could be a weakness, along with the fact that he is going into the election without a seat or a voice in the Bundestag, the German parliament. On the other hand, he is an inspiring speaker. He can connect the old social-democratic narrative, of people rising up above their modest origins, to his own life.
Unlike the brooding Gabriel and Olaf Scholz and Andrea Nahles, who are angling for candidacies in 2021, Schulz was the only member of the SPD leadership who actually seemed interested in the candidacy. But he has been preparing himself for this moment for over a year now, both mentally and physically, as if he knew it was coming. He lost 10 kilograms and mostly follows a "Just Eat Half" diet, although he also allows himself to gorge occasionally to keep his body from going into crisis mode. It's a trick his personal trainer taught him.
Schulz has already sketched out his campaign. The word respect will play a big role: Respect for hard work, for committed professional training, and respect for engagement, civic courage and solidarity.
He doesn't intend to move his party's agenda much further to the left. He's been a member of the more conservative wing of the SPD, known as the Seeheimer Circle, not to mention having worked together in a grand coalition between conservatives and the center-left in the European Parliament, for far too long for that to happen. He knows that elections are won at the center. At the same time, it's also unlikely that he would automatically rule out the possibility of governing together in a coalition with the Greens and the Left Party if they can build a majority in parliament. Of course, this would require a major boost in the polls on the SPD's part and would also be a lightning rod for criticism given the Left Party's roots in the former East German communist regime. During the recent selection of the next German president, Schulz even advocated internally for the SPD to join forces with the Green and Left parties to field a joint candidate.
Party Suffers Lack of Credibility
The campaign planners at KNSK, the Hamburg-based agency responsible for the SPD's election campaign, made its weaknesses clear during a recent closed-door meeting with party leaders in Düsseldorf. "People no longer believe the SPD," was one bitter, central message. The stubborn handling by the SPD of its government coalition contract with Merkel's conservatives provided neither gloss nor hope. What is decisive for credibility, the Hamburg strategists argued, were very different issues. "What interests people are questions like: Are you fighting against corporations? Or what are you doing against tax evaders?"
A lack of credibility is a central deficit in the party's image, the agency's experts said. The group at the meeting already had a person to blame in the back of their minds: Sigmar Gabriel. He has been criticized for his tendency to jump from focus to focus, his unsteady directives, his constantly changing strategies -- all aspects that Schulz had always complained about internally. The experts warned that the SPD needs to take concrete steps to address and solve the problems. At the same time, they shouldn't promise too much -- at least not more than they can achieve.
Schulz wants to take all of this to heart. "The term 'social justice' has been worn-out and people can no longer stand hearing it," he recently said. "Lots of people have the sense that, in very fundamental ways, things are no longer just."
Schulz is a fan of Bill Clinton's formulation from the early nineties that things must once again revolve around the majority of people who "work hard and play by the rules." They slave away to pay their taxes, they are involved, possibly still take care of their parents and are law-abiding citizens. Schulz wants to place them in contrast with those who don't follow the rules - be they the men who groped women at Cologne's central station a year ago new year's eve or executives who are funneling their millions of euros out of the country to dodge taxes.
It will be about the fight against corporations like Amazon, that make several billion euros in revenue in Germany every year, but hardly pay any taxes. It will be about the question of solidarity. On a practical level, it would sound like this: "Mr. Winterkorn has destabilized an entire company thanks to the VW scandal and yet he still receives a bonus. When a worker makes a mistake like this on the assembly line, he or she is fired." Schulz is capable of speaking strongly in a way that dances to the edge of populism without crossing the line.
In the past week, he has the taken up the criticism many journalists have levelled at him: that he isn't qualified for the job because he didn't finish his secondary education or go to university. Schulz believes that he can turn this supposed disadvantage into an advantage by railing against those critics' arrogance and sense of superiority.
Campaigning Against the Far-Right
Schulz' campaign will take up issues like peace and the fight against the far-right and for an open, pluralistic society. He will point out that Donald Trump has had spiritual predecessors in Europe for years in the form of Jörg Haider in Austria, Jean-Marie Le Pen in France and, especially, Silvio Berlusconi. The Italian made the EU parliamentarian famous in 2003 when he said that Schulz could have played an overseer in a Nazi film. "This day changed my life overnight," Schulz says. "It turned everything upside down." Schulz, who as an EU politician had often suffered as a result of not getting the kind of attention and recognition in Germany he would have liked, was grateful to Berlusconi for the commotion.
Schulz had attacked Berlusconi's media policies, speaking of a "virus of conflicts of interest." Back then, he had often said in Brussels that "If the richest man in the country, the biggest media operator, is also the head of government, then that is dangerous in a democracy." Schulz sees a similar problem in Trump's election.
The key stages in the election campaign have already been defined. Schulz wants to get involved in the campaign before the March 26 election in the state of Saarland. "Two or three more percent for the SPD -- and we have a chance at a red-red-green coalition," he says, referring to a coalition between the SPD, the Greens and the Left Party. If it won by only a hair, it would be a very fragile government, but Schulz established reliable contact with Oskar Lafontaine, who heads the Left Party in the Saarland state Legislature, years ago. Those ties could prove useful after the election.
SPD members see a win in Saarland as a positive boost for May elections in Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia. But it is the final weeks of the election that will be the most decisive. Schulz' advisors mention pollsters' findings that 40 percent of German voters first make their decision during the final two weeks. This, they argue, provides an enormous opportunity for the SPD.
The fact that Schulz is now a party leader and candidate for chancellor for Europe's oldest democratic party is also a triumph over his own life journey, or at least its messy beginning.
Schulz grew up the son of a police officer in the village of Hehlrath, in an apartment above the police station. The lignite mine was located right next door, and the borders to the Netherlands and Belgium were just a few kilometers away.
As a young man, he dreamed of becoming a professional football player. After the 11th grade, he had to leave school because he had already been held back twice. He preferred to spend his time on the football pitch. Then he broke his knee-joint on the turf at Rhenania 05 Würselen and thus his dream disappeared. Schulz studied to become a bookseller, but then became an alcoholic.
He hung around and began racking up debt because he drank more than he earned. At night he even drank out of shame that he couldn't stop drinking. He had long been active with the local youth chapter of the Social Democrats, but they told him he could no longer be their leader.
The night of June 26, 1980, became a turning point in his life. If it had gone differently, Schulz might be dead today rather than chancellor candidate. That night he came close to committing suicide. It was his older brother Erwin who ultimately stopped him.
At his brother's urging, he soon checked into a clinic, where he underwent four months of rehab. There he recognized how he had fallen into alcohol abuse: a divide had emerged between his expectations of himself and his actual capabilities. He wanted to become a professional football star but was only playing at the local league level. He wanted to be a good student, but was too lazy to study. He lacked a realistic view of himself and knowledge of his own limits. He had had a tendency to overestimate his capabilities, but looking back now he says he learned at the time to start asking himself critical questions.
His knowledge of this old tendency became relevant last year when he had to ask himself whether it would be too much for him to run for chancellor while also becoming the head of the SPD. And, if he succeeded, would he really trust himself in the role of chancellor? Can I do it? Am I suitable? Is this something I should even be doing? These questions occupied his thoughts, and he discussed them with his wife Inge. In the end, he answered each of the four questions affirmatively.
After successfully completing his rehab, Schulz opened a book store in Würselen. What others learned in school or at college, he taught himself by reading entire shelves of books. He met his wife Inge, who had completed a degree in landscape architecture. They had two children together, a son and a daughter.
In 1987, Schulz was elected mayor of Würselen at the age of 31. Seven years later, he was elected to the European Parliament, where he would stay for 22 years -- first as a member of parliament, later as the head of the Social Democrats' party group and ultimately as parliament president.
- Part 1: Meet the Man Who Will Challenge Merkel
- Part 2: Fresh Wind in the Sails of the SPD