David vs. Goliath The Unequal Battle Between Martin Schulz and Angela Merkel

He started with a bang. But for months, Social Democratic chancellor candidate Martin Schulz has been having trouble gaining traction on the campaign trail. Could it be that he doesn't want power badly enough?

Hermann Bredehorst / DER SPIEGEL

By and


The stage is ready for the day's star guest. Light gray, leather lounge chairs are positioned in the middle of the atrium of the Social Democratic Party's (SPD) national headquarters in Berlin. The women have already taken their places. Jasmin Tabatabai, a well-known German actress has come, as has Turkish-German novelist Hatice Akyün and Katarina Barley, the SPD's general secretary.

The seat in the middle is still free and Barley grabs the microphone and says, "I'd like to welcome the George Clooney of the SPD!"

As the audience gives its applause, a man with rectangular glasses enters the stage. He wears a garland around his bald head and a striped tie that don't suggest much in the way of modern-day sartorial ambitions. It's all a little bit embarrassing for the guest. He squints into the lights and waves to the audience shyly. Then he sits down, crossing his legs and placing his hands on his knee.

In 2006, People magazine named Clooney the "sexiest man alive." On this gloomy March day, Martin Schulz has been the SPD's chancellor candidate for one and a half months, the craziest period of his life to that point. For many years, the man led a rather unassuming existence as a member of the European Parliament in Brussels. Now, though, he suddenly found himself in the role of SPD savior, saving the party from a curse that had kept it from achieving success for years. He was the challenger who could end Merkel's era as chancellor after 12 endless years. Female members of the party's youth wing shriek sometimes when they see him.

It may very well be this evening when Schulz realizes that something isn't quite right -- that he may be a lot of things, but he isn't all that his followers want him to be. Akyün says, "We need politicians like Justin Trudeau, politicians who stand up and say: 'I'm a feminist.'" The women look to Schulz with high expectations, but he says nothing. Attractive Justin with his curly brown locks of hair! A man who, if he weren't prime minister of Canada, could be an underwear model. Yet another absurd comparison.

At some point in the summer, the bubble burst. Schulz would then say that he never wanted this kind of hysteria -- the tweets like: "The Schulz Train ... Next stop: The Chancellery." Nor was he pleased with the Communist-like 100 percent he received when elected as the party's new chairman.

But Schulz didn't want to mess things up with the women on that evening in March. The hype was still in full force -- and like some voracious animal, it had to be fed. If he became chancellor, he finally said, women would be appointed to half the ministerial positions allotted to his party in the coalition government. The remark drew massive applause, and once again the SPD had made a promise it hadn't made yet during the campaign.

Germany has a political roller-coaster ride behind it. At the start of the year, it appeared that voters had become weary of Chancellor Merkel. Polls indicated there could be a change of power and that Merkel, after three terms in office, might not follow in the steps of Helmut Kohl, who governed Germany for 16 years. Only months later, however, some within the SPD are already mulling a future for the party without Schulz at its helm.

Nothing is final yet, and the two only just had their only televised debate over the weekend. It isn't yet clear whether Schulz will get a bump. But the question remains of how Schulz could have risen and then fallen again in the polls that quickly? And how could Merkel have regained so much momentum, after looking so worn down in January to the point that she almost seemed like she was voluntarily ready to leave office?

But the state of the country is also at stake. It's been said that the election campaign has been dull, but that's only one perspective. The country is stewing -- with people screaming and full of hate. That also is a function of the fact that the two candidates, despite their attempts to distinguish themselves from one another, are actually not very far apart on most major policy issues.

TWO WORLDS

Everything takes a little longer than planned on this sweltering hot Friday night at the beginning of July. Chancellor Merkel has invited world leaders to the G-20 summit in Hamburg and the leaders' motorcades have trouble making their way through the city, in part because of the Black Bloc. But finally, the security people take their positions and things begin moving in the VIP boxes of the Elbphilharmonie concert hall. French first lady Brigitte Macron arrives first, wearing a pantsuit that looks as though it had been painted on. She's followed by Melania Trump, who wears a white dress adorned with thousands of fringes that flap like a curtain in the wind. Donald Trump waves and receives scant applause.

Finally, Merkel makes her appearance wearing gray, crumpled pants and a glaring pink blazer, followed by her sullen husband Joachim Sauer. A German couple. But something unbelievable happens. The applause from the upper crust of Hamburg's high society begins to swell. It's as if Mahatma Gandhi has arisen from the dead and entered the box. Shouts of joy can be heard in a sudden outburst of enthusiasm.

Merkel smiles benevolently -- she's used to being admired, after all. But for a moment she transcends politics, seemingly on a plane somewhere between Gandhi and the Queen. The only thing still missing, it seems, is the Nobel Peace Prize. The G-20 protesters outside are burning barricades, but the chancellor couldn't be any more distant from all that.

Such is the situation at the beginning of July. On the Monday after the G-20 summit, SPD candidate Schulz's motorcade makes a stop in Kösching, a small market town located near Ingolstadt. The candidate has few bad weeks behind him, with a trio of significant defeats, including poor showings for his party in state elections in Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia. Now, in the wake of extremely violent G-20 protests, reports in the newspapers claim the Social Democrats have no understanding of security. Olaf Schulz, Hamburg's SPD mayor, had promised that the summit would be secure and even said it would be comparable to the jovial atmosphere of the city's annual harbor celebration. Merkel, as always, displayed her prudence by not promising anything at all.

Within the SPD, people have begun saying that only a miracle can save Schulz. He's leading, as has now become clear, a manic-depressive political party, which may also explain why he has decided to travel to Kösching. The small town has a Social Democrat as its mayor -- a singularity in conservative Upper Bavaria, a region dominated by the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats. Apparently miracles are still possible in Kösching.

Mayor Andrea Ernhofer hands the town's guest book to Schulz. An autograph card signed by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the SPD is taped to it. "We've taken the first step toward the Chancellery in Kösching," Schulz says in his speech on the town square, given to an audience of around 50 Social Democrats and two sunshades.

In the campaign bus on the way to Munich, journalists ask a terrible question -- one that has become something of a daily ritual:

Hasn't the election already been decided?

Schulz doesn't want to come across like Peer Steinbrück did when he served as the SPD's chancellor candidate in 2013. Back then, Steinbrück appeared to have given up all hope well before election day and even allowed himself to be photographed showing his middle finger.

The campaign, Schulz responds, hasn't even begun yet. More than half the voters still haven't made up their minds, he insists, and his party is more motivated than it has been in years.

But like Steinbrück before him, Schulz can be something of a loose cannon. The sentences that come out of his mouth tend not to be as smooth as those imparted by Angela Merkel. In Munich, Schulz's bus pulls to a stop in front of a glass building. He's visiting the company Time in the Box, a firm that uses virtual reality to create digital time travel. The owner says that they are just about to reproduce the first time that Bertha Benz drove a car at the end of the 19th century.

"Can you program a virtual election victory?" Schulz asks. He laughs, but there's a ring of "I want to go home" in it.

Campaign reporters hungry for candidate gaffs begin scrawling in their notebooks and Schulz immediately sees what he has done.

Program a virtual election victory!

POWER

The question is how things could have pivoted so quickly. Election campaigns are certainly focused on issues, but it is also always a question of whether the person running really wants the job or not.

Gerhard Schröder had always aspired to become chancellor -- even as a young man. But Schulz's candidacy was a product of chance, at least in part.

Everything likely would have turned out differently if Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the SPD hadn't pushed so hard to become German president. And for a long time, it appeared that Merkel would be successful in ignoring the foreign minister's claim to the presidency. But when her conservative party failed to deliver a suitable candidate for the largely symbolic head of state role, she had no other choice but to support Steinmeier's candidacy.

Shortly thereafter, the chancellor called Sigmar Gabriel, then head of the SPD and vice chancellor, and told him she was very sorry, but she could not make one Social Democrat the German president and then turn around and extend the term of another Social Democrat as president of the European Parliament in Brussels. That, at least, is the narrative told within the SPD.

For Schulz, reaching the office of European Parliament president already marked the pinnacle of his political career. As a young man, he never believed he would make it that far. An addiction to alcohol in his early 20s brought Schulz close to suicide. His brother Erwin, a doctor, provided him with treatment and Schulz quit drinking and began a constant, if unspectacular, career. At 31, he became the mayor of his hometown Würselen. He had no challenger in that election. "The other parties didn't name a candidate," the official city record states. Seven years later, Schulz became a member of the European Parliament, where he served as a parliamentarian for 20 years.

As a politician, Schulz has a great need for harmony -- which is in part a product of the years he spent maturing as a politician in the unique biotope of politics that is Brussels. Of course, he had enemies there -- the right-wing extremists with France's Front National or British UKIP populist Nigel Farage, whose diatribes against the German were as disgraceful as they were eloquent.

Still, he also found plenty of like-minded groups who know no partisan politics and believe in nothing other than the grand idea of the European Union. Conservative politician Jean-Claude Juncker and left-leaning Schulz were like the chairmen of this community. Schulz organized majorities in parliament for the European Commission president and, in exchange, was given influence in decisions made by the EU executive. Schulz learned in Brussels that politics is a constant give and take, service between friends.

There are few words that Schulz uses more often. Juncker is a "friend," as is former French President François Hollande, his successor Emmanuel Macron and, of course, Sigmar Gabriel, from whom he inherited the role of SPD party chair. All are friends.

Merkel, on the other hand, essentially has no friends in politics and has always done well by keeping her distance from everyone. In contrast to Schulz, she tends to be very formal in her language, because she has learned that using more personal language often doesn't mean much. For years, she has addressed Horst Seehofer -- the powerful leader of the CSU -- by his first name, but that hasn't changed the fact that he can be at her throat one day and praising her to high heaven the next.

She's experienced pretty much every possible treatment from Seehofer. At times, he has slammed her on the stage at a CSU party convention like a little school girl, only to turn around at the presentation of the joint CDU-CSU political platforms for the current election in early July and say that he trusts the chancellor blindly.

Standing next to Seehofer at the CDU's national headquarters in Berlin that day, there was little Merkel could do but raise her eyebrows in irony. You could see what was going through her head. Was she really going to say that she also had blind faith in a man who had made her life hell during the refugee crisis?

She neither wanted to follow one obvious lie with another nor create any kind of sensation. Finally, she said "even a blind hen sometimes finds a grain of corn," a sentence so opaque that it was open to almost any kind of interpretation.

Friendship in politics? Merkel has already ended too many of them to still believe in those kinds of fairy tales: her mentor Helmut Kohl, with his arrogance; there was Roland Koch, the scheming erstwhile governor of the state of Hesse; and Friedrich Merz, an irascible and powerful former senior CDU politician. Ultimately, Merkel defeated them all. She is infinitely disciplined, only ocassionally allowing herself a pinch of schadenfreude as a reward.

Since Schulz's arrival in Berlin, the old give and take method has no longer worked. He has had to become a lot tougher, which doesn't really suit his personality. Even the path to chancellor candidate was rough. Schulz made it clear early on that he felt he was the right person for the office, but he didn't want to stab his friend Sigmar Gabriel in the back. He wanted the shift to be gentle, with Gabriel ceding the candidacy and, in turn, being rewarded with a handsome ministerial post.

But Gabriel dithered and delayed and the two friends soon came to a point where they could no longer speak openly with each other. At the end of the year, Gabriel summoned a confidant and asked him to write a speech explaining why he wouldn't pursue the party's candidacy. But he warned the aide not to discuss it with anyone, especially not Schulz.

Distrust between Schulz and Gabriel is now overshadowing the election campaign. For weeks, it was Foreign Minister Gabriel who was hitting the headlines. After the G-20 riots in Hamburg, Gabriel suggested Merkel ought to step down as a way of diverting critical attention from his own party's failures in the city. He also issued a travel advisory suggesting Germans should not go to Turkey following a string of arrests of the country's nationals there. Finally, he implied that his party was not interested in continuing a coalition government with Merkel's conservatives.

Schulz was furious. If anyone in the party was to make those decisions, he thought, then it should be the party chair. But Schulz didn't rebuke Gabriel publicly, preferring to call him and tell him off privately. Schulz has since developed a merciless view of his predecessor's time as the party's leader. He doesn't speak openly about it because internal peace within the SPD is too important to him.

Gerhard Schröder's law firm has an attractive office in Hannover's Zoo district, with photos of the chancellor hung on the walls inside. Schröder, of course, was the last SPD politician to reside in the Chancellery. Schröder doesn't want to give Schulz any public advice, but he does feel one shouldn't be too squeamish on the campaign trail. In Schröder's view, Merkel's weak spots are the refugees she allowed into the country in 2015. He's even come up with a mean-spirited, but also brilliant one-liner for it. Merkel, he says, has a heart, but no plan. It is the kind of thing that could immediately have been turned into a campaign poster.

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