The Future of the SPD Martin Schulz Faces a Fight for Survival

Germany's Social Democrats had a grim result in this year's federal elections. Now chancellor candidate Martin Schulz is battling for re-election as SPD chairman. His quest isn't just about power, it's also about his legacy.

HC Plambeck / DER SPIEGEL

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On Tuesday of this week, the railway labor union was having a conference at Hotel Estrel on Berlin's Sonnenallee. Martin Schulz was sitting in the front row of the conference room, about to hold a welcome address. Schulz smiled to the left, he smiled to the right, then union leader Alexander Kirchner stepped up to the microphone. "I believe, many of us would have wished you weren't here today," he said, with a serious look, to the head of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).

Schulz looks startled. What now?

"We would have wished that, having won the election, you were in the middle of coalition negotiations," Kirchner joked. Laughter rose up in the hall.

Labor-union conferences might be boring events, but for Schulz they are part of his recovery. Finally, a half-hour in which nobody was complaining about him or prophesizing about the demise of social democracy. Schulz would be able to speak about justice and fairness, about jobs and workers' participation. "We will continue fighting for the railways to be strengthened in this country," Schulz said. He was passing out figurative treats to the railway workers.

These days, Schulz rarely has such a pleasant way to spend his time. Since the SPD's debacle on election day, on September 24, the party chairman has been in a tunnel, and mostly busy trying to secure his political survival. On the one hand, this is unsurprising, but on the other, it's quite strange -- because the SPD should be happy that anyone is still willing to fill the position given the party's current state. Like his predecessor, Sigmar Gabriel, Schulz is now learning what it means to be the head of a notoriously quarrelsome party.

Sometimes his number two, Olaf Schulz, takes him down a notch. Sometimes the women rebel. Then former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder teases him. Or people say that Schulz doesn't have any idea where he even wants to lead the SPD. "Even if I wrote 'The Communist Manifesto: Part Two,' people would still be saying: That's really thin," Schulz recently complained to his allies.

The SPD's despondent image these days reminds some people of the drama that surrounded Kurt Beck nine years ago. At the time, Beck resigned from his position as party chairman, claiming he had been the victim of party intrigues. But there's a small difference: Schulz doesn't want to give up, on the contrary, it looks like he will be reelected at the party conference in December.

Schulz's life insurance is the trust that everyday party members still have in him. And the fact that there is nobody on his coattails right now who could actually become dangerous to him. Andrea Nahles doesn't want to. Scholz would like to - but state governors mockingly describe him as a small-time mayor and he has the reputation of being someone who always purses his lips but never whistles.

Many Social Democrats are asking themselves why Schulz is submitting himself to this torture. One of his friends recently told him he is a free man, he has attained everything. Mayor. European politician. Candidate for the chancellorship. He told him the pension is secure, the kids are out of the house, why doesn't he just do what he really wants to do from now on? Does he really want this position, in this context, after this defeat?

Three weeks after the election. Schulz was sitting in a restaurant. He had reserved a table in the private room. Here he was safe from prying eyes, he had enough of that during the election. He ordered blood sausage with apple chutney and a glass of water. Schulz had an unsparing view of the state of the party, of his own weaknesses and mistakes during the campaign. But it also became clear how much the defeat was bothering him.

Defeat is part of politics, and can touch anyone. Schulz, however, saw the result from September 24 not as a failure but as an affront. For politicians, big defeats towards the end of their careers are especially painful, because they often don't have much opportunity to correct them. They instead just need to live with them, with the fact that they will be remembered as losers no matter what came before. Schulz knows if he gives up, he will go into history as a falling political star that briefly burned brightly and then disappeared.

For Schulz that is not an option. His fight for the chairmanship is also a kind of therapy. It is meant to help him work through the trauma of September.

New Ambition

In mid-October, Schulz took part in a conclave with the party leadership in which the Social Democrats talked about the reasons for their failure. Afterwards some of his critics reported that Schulz had sat there looking powerless. In the party's Berlin headquarters, the term "chaperoned party leadership" began making the rounds. The term originated from a TV correspondent who used it when describing the situation on camera in party headquarters, though some have later attributed it to Schulz's opponents. It has become part of the media jargon.

Schulz didn't know anything about it, he felt challenged by his critics. When he met the parliamentary group the next day, he went up to Andrea Nahles and said that he wanted to talk to the representatives about some fundamentals. It turned into a 15-minute speech about capitalism, social democratic sins, the mistakes of Schröder's "third way" and the wrongness of Francis Fukuyama's "end of history." Schulz picked up steam as he spoke. "We once again need to question the system," he told his fellow party members. They were amazed. They clapped. Schulz was good. And he was satisfied with himself. To hell with the naysayers.

Therein lies Schulz's paradox: In the campaign, he often came across like a friendly gentleman. But since his defeat, he has shown enormous ambition, and vanity, in his public appearances. Or at least when someone doubted his abilities.

When Olaf Scholz wrote a paper about the future of the SPD, Schulz wrote a longer one and brought up the possibility of holding a primary for the party leadership. When Sigmar Gabriel complained about the campaign, he accused him and all the other longtime leaders within the party of fleeing their responsibility. And when people criticized his lack of ideas, Schulz briefly flirted with the idea of selling all of the expensive art in the party headquarters, the Neo Rauchs and Willy Brandt statues, in order to invest in the former East German states. He recently told a trusted friend that people want to attack him until he's becomes vulnerable, "but they won't succeed."

Sometimes he looks like he has nerves of steel. Other times they seem weak. On the day after the election, Schulz held a disastrous press conference, during which he was gruff and unconcentrated. Later, he went to the garden party of the Seeheim district. The press conference was a major subject for discussion there. While the guests sipped their white wine, Schulz sat in front, on a section of the stage, and lost his composure. "What do you want?" he yelled at the reporters. "You live in your bubble and don't experience anything of real life!" At that moment, Schulz seemed more like a bouncer than an SPD chair. Later, the people he had attacked received an apology.

The longer a politician is in office, the more difficult it becomes to find the right moment to leave. That's currently on display with Horst Seehofer, the current president of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and Angela Merkel. The head of the CSU is refusing to leave, even though his party has long been suffering under him. He doesn't want to allow himself to be chased out of the yard. And the chancellor doesn't want to end up having fewer years in office than Helmut Kohl. She is still there, even though she has managed to accomplish everything.

Schulz' situation is different. He wants to stay, because he believes that he hasn't really been able to get going. The Schulz era of the SPD, he believes, is only now getting started.

A Newcomer in Berlin

That's not totally out of the question. Hans-Jochen Vogel became the chair of the SPD several years after his failed campaign to become chancellor, because Johannes Rau and Oskar Lafontaine didn't want to do it. He became a good chair who renewed the party, especially when it came to women's causes.

But things will be difficult for Schulz. The framework is different from 1987. The party system is more diverse, coalition partners are harder to find. The Greens are on the verge of joining the bourgeois camp. The core clientele is shrinking. In the party leadership, people are mistrustful, and are fighting for the remaining positions. And there won't be a state election that can revitalize the SPD until fall 2018.

October 24, the constituent meeting of the Bundestag. Schulz had a problem, there have been personnel disputes. Juliane Seifert, his general manager, had quit because he had approached a possible replacement for her behind her back. Schulz sat in the plenary assembly next to Andrea Nahles. He leaned far to the right, she leaned far to the left, their body language was revealing. Things could get difficult between the two of them. Nahles wants a weak head of the party, because it creates room for her to maneuver.

Schulz used the breaks to meet with allies. He sat in the lawmakers' restaurant with his treasurer, later drank coffee with Sigmar Gabriel. When they left, a satirist from "heute-show," a TV show, approached them with a microphone in his hand. Gabriel figured out what was going on and ignored the reporter. Schulz let himself get embroiled in a short conversation.

Schulz has been part of the Social Democrats' leadership since 1999, and has been party head for eight months, but in Berlin he is, in a sense, still a newcomer. There are politicians who like to show off how distant they are from the capital, in order to create a sense of brotherhood with those people who view Berlin's government quarter as a symbol for the capital's abstract way of doing things. It some ways it is a positive for Schulz that he is unfamiliar with Berlin, and the way in which politics and media function here.

He spent the majority of his career in Brussels - a different cosmos from Berlin. The boundaries between parties there are more fluid, all of them share the same goal of strengthening Europe. Schulz was the president of the parliament for a long time, a pleasant role, because he could fight for the good: for more democracy, more participation, more integration. Subjects that allowed him to float above the little things. Now he's no longer floating, he is stuck in the thick of the internal struggle.

A Uniting Force

If he wants to remain leader of his party until 2019, Schulz needs to get the hang of his new role. He too rarely thinks through the consequences of his actions. His proposal for a primary is legally complex. If his plan fails, it would be a personal defeat. Recently, when he named Lars Klingbeil as his preferred general secretary, it complicated the election of Thomas Oppermann as vice-president of the Bundestag, and the SPD's female members felt overlooked. Schulz had to convince Oppermann's rival candidate Ulla Schmidt to withdraw her candidacy for his sake, and she ended up in tears in the Bundestag.

To secure his power, Schulz pursues a strategy of inclusiveness. He would like to boost the party's executive board from 35 to 45 members to head off disagreement at the annual party conference. When Sigmar Gabriel was the leader of the party, he scaled back its executive board, but Schulz wants to make sure that all of the SPD's various factions and regional association, however minor, are adequately represented in the party's leadership.

This could be helpful at the conference, because everyone will feel they've been consulted, but a lack of friction could create the impression that there's not much changing within in the SPD. This is the basic dilemma facing Schulz - he lacks the power to push though the revamp the party needs if it's going to start all over from scratch.

It also remains unclear where Schulz wants to lead the Social Democrats. He has outlined plans that he's testing at regional conferences. He would like to position the SPD as a European party again and he believes that there's more political space for the SPD these days, now that everyone is veering to the right. This might be a reasonable approach, but adopting a more left-leaning line could undermine his credibility, given that Schulz is on the right of his party.

Last Sunday, Schulz attended an event at the Mercure Hotel in Berlin. Party members had been invited to get things off their chest. A few Social Democrats sat on the floor cross-legged, sketching plans for the party's renewal on posters and discussing its revival. The atmosphere was vaguely New Age-y. "Martin 2021," read one of the posters.

Schulz knew exactly what everyone wanted to hear. "We're a left-wing mainstream party," he declared. "We cannot allow the term 'left-wing' to be commandeered by the Left Party!" He pointed out that the idea that all economic power should be placed under public control had already been part of the party's program in 1959. "If we don't civilize predatory capitalism, it will eat us up." He said he wanted to bring the entire party into the debate about its future path. And in the end, he said, "what will be crucial is that it will apply to everyone - even those who didn't support it." Wouldn't that be nice.

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