In November 1998, Angela Merkel gave an interview to the photographer and writer Herlinde Koelbl. It was a moment of uncertainty in Merkel's career, coming as it did just after Chancellor Helmut Kohl, on whose cabinet Merkel had served for seven years, lost that year's general election. Kohl had failed to recognize that Germans had grown weary of his leadership and now, his party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), found itself in the opposition.
Merkel was lucky. The new CDU head Wolfgang Schäuble had chosen her as his secretary general. But she resolved at the time to not allow her career to end as Kohl's had.
"At some point, I want to find the right moment to withdraw from politics," she said in the interview with Koelbl. "That is much more difficult than I used to imagine. But I don't want to be a half-dead wreck when I leave politics behind. Rather, I would like to pursue something else after a phase of boredom."
Has Merkel missed the right moment? Has she stumbled into the Kohl trap?
Last Monday, Merkel was sitting in the headquarters of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to her CDU, looking as though she were a guest at her own funeral. Next to her was CSU head Horst Seehofer who, after months of castigating the chancellor for her refugee policy and threatening to withhold his support for her re-election campaign, had finally decided to back Merkel.
"I ... um ... as head of the CSU ... um ... can inform you that ... um ... I ... um, um ... have declared my support ... um ... and that of the CSU ... um ... for German Chancellor Angela Merkel ... um, um ... for the coming election campaign and for her candidacy as chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany ... um, um ... with the support of the party leadership and the executive committee."
A Liberated SPD
It was by far the least cheerful launch of an election campaign in recent German history. And if the conservative campaign is as stuttering as Seehofer's endorsement, then Merkel might as well hand over the keys to the Chancellery to her Social Democratic (SPD) challenger Martin Schulz right now.
What a shift! Just three weeks ago, it looked as though the only intrigue in the coming election would be how badly the SPD would lose to Merkel and whether the party would end up in the opposition instead of in its current role as junior coalition partner. Almost all Social Democrats expected that erstwhile party head Sigmar Gabriel would lead the SPD in the campaign as chancellor candidate -- and lead the party into certain defeat. Instead, though, Gabriel unexpectedly resigned and handed over the reins to Schulz -- and the party suddenly seems liberated.
Is the Merkel Era approaching its end? Is the mood changing? The numbers haven't yet become clear and surveys aren't the same thing as election results -- as we learned from Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. But the country's political mood is changing and even people in Merkel's orbit say that "the trend is clear." It is currently on the side of the SPD.
According to the pollsters at Infratest dimap, fully 50 percent of Germans want the next government to be led by the SPD, a result that is 14 percentage points higher than prior to the last general election in 2013. Only 39 percent want to see a government led by Merkel's conservatives. Schulz is also well ahead of Merkel on the question regarding which candidate voters would choose were they able to vote for individual candidates instead of parties. It has been almost 20 years since the SPD has held a similar lead on that question. That was in March 1998 when Gerhard Schröder announced his candidacy against Helmut Kohl -- a campaign he would go on to win.
When Schulz showed up last Monday evening in the textile factory in Bocholt, a city in Germany's far west near the Dutch border, he was received with rhythmic applause as supporters held signs aloft reading: "Schulz Now!" and "Time for Martin!"
Turning Them Away at the Doors
The resuscitation of the country's oldest political party is visible everywhere: The North Rhine-Westphalia chapter of the SPD received 140 registrations for a seminar on campaign stands despite having expected just 25. The number of new members signing up is higher than it has been in recent memory, with over 4,600 new members registering online since Schulz's selection as the party's candidate.
In the southwestern German city of Freiburg, the local SPD office ran out of party books for new members and the party has encountered the same problem in the states of Saarland and Lower Saxony. When Schulz visited a local chapter in the northeast of Hamburg last week, hundreds of members wanted to attend. The party changed venues but there was still only room for about 100 people. It has been a long time since the SPD has had to turn people away at the doors.
Among conservatives, concerns are mounting. "One can have an effect on survey numbers, but it is extremely difficult to reverse a change in mood," says CSU head Horst Seehofer.
Merkel's success had long come at the expense of the SPD. The center-left party suffered due to its chair Sigmar Gabriel -- because of his volatile nature and tendency to push away even those who wanted only the best for him. Now, Gabriel has stepped aside, a move for which he deserves credit. Doing so has placed the spotlight squarely on the weaknesses of the chancellor.
"In the 12th year of her tenure, Merkel is now experiencing the normal weariness with incumbents experienced by Adenauer in 1959-60, Kohl in the years following 1989 and Margaret Thatcher following 11 years as prime minister," says Andreas Rödder, a historian based in the city of Mainz. But it's not just that the electorate has grown tired of Merkel. She is also leading a conservative alliance that is more fractured than ever before. The CSU-CDU peace summit held in Munich a week ago is nothing more than a temporary cease-fire and Merkel's aura as a chancellor who is level-headed in times of crisis took a significant hit in the summer of 2015 when she opened the country's borders to refugees. It was an act of humanity, but it didn't just divide Germany, but also Europe. Indeed, the EU continues to suffer from Merkel's solitary decision even today.
Merkel's chancellorship is showing its wear and tear , and that is where the danger lies. It is often the case that the electorate's vote for a challenger is more of a vote against the incumbent. And it has long been true in Germany that political power erodes over time. Ludwig Erhard and Helmut Schmidt were discarded because they no longer followed their own parties. Helmut Kohl got driven out of office because, after 16 years in the Chancellery, he seemed like a monument to himself: gray and fossilized.
Boos and Whistles
Merkel was long able to profit from the fact that she rarely triggered strong emotions. She gently modernized the CDU, which allowed the party to attract a different group of voters. She appealed to young women and residents of large cities, constituencies that had never before voted for the CDU or CSU. Some conservative voters turned their backs on the party, but in sum she won over more voters than she repelled.
The refugee crisis, though, changed everything. Since the summer of 2015, Merkel has become extremely polarizing, not unlike Hillary Clinton was in the recent U.S. campaign. "There are now people who would rather chop off their hands than vote for Merkel," says one Merkel confidant. When the chancellor was campaigning in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania last summer ahead of elections in the state, she occasionally appeared only in front of hand-picked audiences because her speeches would otherwise have been drowned out by boos and whistles.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 7/2017 (February 11, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.
Schulz is profiting from this mood. Oddly, he has even been able to attract some supporters away from the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party. Schulz is able to combine the habits of a populist with a center-left platform, including his commitment to the European Union and to the country's liberal refugee policies. Until recently, only the AfD offered a clear alternative to Merkel. Now, the Social Democrats are as well, at least in terms of political style. Their message is clear: Merkel has to go.
Falk Odrich, 66, was recently standing behind a stall at a weekend farmer's market in Frankfurt selling Spreewald pickles as a way of supplementing his limited pension. In 2014, he had campaigned on behalf of the AfD in Erfurt. "I distributed 40,000 pamphlets and stood for hours behind the AfD stand on the city's central square," he said. He thought at the time that the AfD was the party of normal people, but party officials had barely moved into Thuringian state parliament before you hardly saw them anymore, Odrich said. Björn Höcke, the party's floor leader in the Thuringian state Legislature, he complained, has increasingly become a rabble rouser -- most recently with his massively criticized calls for Germany to cast aside its World War II guilt. And now, with Schulz on the ticket for the Social Democrats, Odrich intends to join the party. "I already have a membership application at home."
Isn't he bothered by the fact that Schulz, to a greater degree than many other German politicians, backs the European Union and a humanitarian approach to the refugee issue? No, Odrich said, adding that he actually finds it good: Refugees, he said, should be fairly distributed throughout Europe and not just taken in by Germany. "That was Merkel's mistake, the fact that she opened the borders without first coordinating with other Europeans."
Schulz has become a figure of promise, embodying all kinds of hopes. He has never held a position in the German government, if you don't count his stint as mayor of a Würselen, a city with a population of 40,000 people on the border to the Netherlands. But Schulz has managed to leverage his years as Würselen's leader into a narrative of being a man of the people. "You won't find real life in the Bundestag," Schulz says, referring to the German parliament in Berlin. "You'll find it in city halls."
"Oh please," German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble told SPIEGEL in an interview last week. "Mr. Schulz is no underdog who emerged from the back woods. The man spent decades in the European Parliament." That is true, and yet Schulz is nevertheless intriguing to many. His biography has been anything but straightforward: He was kicked out of school and descended into alcoholism as a young man. He managed to straighten himself out, but remained largely self-taught without a high school diploma or university degree. The last German politician to make it to the top with such an unorthodox resume was Joschka Fischer.
Germans love stories about bumbling heroes and Schulz knows how to take advantage. "Somebody asked if it is possible to become chancellor without a high school diploma," he said in Bocholt. The question shows a lack of respect, he said, before saying that he "isn't interested in the thinking of the self-proclaimed elite but that of hard-working people."
If his listeners number Merkel among the elite, that's all to the good. The greater the contrast between himself and the incumbent the better. She is the one with the Ph.D. in physics, the super-intelligent one. He is the guy who was booted out of school before graduation. She constantly exhibits restraint, having survived decades in communist East Germany by adopting a poker face and showing sufficient flexibility.
Another significant difference between Schulz and Merkel is his infectious optimism. He is the polar opposite of the morose woman who sat in Munich on Monday looking as though the candidacy for the Chancellery were a cross that CSU head Seehofer had personally laid on her shoulders. Schulz, by contrast, exudes a cheery confidence that the SPD can once again move into the Chancellery after 12 long years.
There is always a significant element of auto-suggestion in election campaigns and the almost feigned belief in victory can actually change reality. Gerhard Schröder's irrepressible pugnacity, for example, was almost enough to get him re-elected in 2005 even though everything seemed aligned against him. Now, it is Schulz who is constantly talking about victory. During his nomination at SPD headquarters in Berlin, he said: "The SPD is beginning the campaign in the expectation that it will become the largest political power in our country." His remark was greeted by rhythmic clapping as Schulz called out: "And I expect to become chancellor!"
Coquetry and Tactics
When it comes to Merkel, there are legitimate questions as to whether she will be able to generate the passion necessary to fight for a fourth term in office. She hesitated for months before declaring her intention to seek re-election. Many in the party assumed the delay was a combination of coquetry and tactics. But that is only part of the truth.
Until she was 35, Merkel was trapped behind the walls of East Germany, unable to fulfill her urge to travel. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, she was immediately caught up in the demands of politics. In 1990, she visited Joachim Sauer, who she would marry eight years later, in San Diego where he worked for a few years. Beyond that, though, she hasn't had the time for more ambitious trips.
Merkel has never publicly indulged in escapism to the degree that Sigmar Gabriel has, who often spoke about how nice life would be without the time pressures of a life in politics. But she also isn't cut from the same cloth as Kohl, who was convinced of his own irreplaceability right up until his last day in the Chancellery. She isn't only able to imagine a life outside of politics, she has also given the impression recently that she is actively yearning for it. Why, then, did she decide to run for a fourth term?
Merkel has no illusions about the effects that her refugee policy has had. In spring 2016, she openly admitted that it has led to a polarization of German society. But Merkel doesn't want to step aside right at that moment when Europe is more divided than ever before. Doing so would leave behind an incomplete tenure. And then came Donald Trump's election on Nov. 8.
Twelve days after Trump's victory, a sallow-faced Merkel stood in the foyer of CDU headquarters in Berlin and confirmed that she was once again running for re-election. She said that she had "given it endless thought" and that many had told her that in such uncertain times, she had to "once again throw my experience and those talents I possess into the ring to serve Germany."
It sounded almost as though she had been forced into the decision at gunpoint. Her long-time friend Klaus von Dohnanyi, the former mayor of Hamburg, put it like this: "Angela Merkel is a woman with an immense sense of responsibility."
Merkel has been unable to hide the fact that her renewed candidacy is a burden, also because acting has never been one of her specialties. In her political career, she never experienced much adversity on her climb to the top. She had hardly joined the CDU before Helmut Kohl handed her a seat on his cabinet. As CDU secretary general, she was forced to confront a campaign donation scandal that cast a dark shadow over Kohl's legacy and nearly torpedoed the career of Wolfgang Schäuble. Ultimately, she was able to ride the scandal to the chairmanship of the CDU, defeating all of her opponents along the way. Once in the Chancellery, she has successfully managed crisis after crisis, including those afflicting global finances and the European currency. And now she is faced with Trump. It is a career that has left behind numerous scars.
Schulz's career, by contrast, has followed a much more meandering, and gradual, trajectory. He spent 10 years as a back-bencher in the European Parliament before becoming floor leader for the Socialists. In 2012, he became president of parliament before being named the Socialists' lead candidate in 2014 European elections. His selection as the SPD's candidate for the Chancellery represents the pinnacle of his career and he is backed by a party that looks ready to throw their full support behind him -- another contrast to Merkel.
Once a month, 81-year-old Franz Bauer, the son of a founding CSU member, attends a gathering of former soldiers at a bar in Grafing, a town near Munich. These days, the group of 15 "core CSU voters," as Bauer calls them, is focused on one issue above all others: "Merkel must go." As things currently stand, only two members of the group plan to vote for the CSU in September. One-third say they won't vote at all.
The rest of the group thinks it would be better to help the AfD than to support Merkel. Bauer also says he is having difficulty deciding "where to place the check mark on the ballot." He says the biggest problem is the "refugee issue." Besides, he says, "Merkel lacks empathy and the strength to mobilize people." He says Merkel's greatest weakness is her quarrel with the CSU -- and it is a conclusion shared by many in the CDU.
It may bye that Merkel sought to make peace with the Bavarian party last Monday, but she has no illusions about its stability. Seehofer isn't interested in torpedoing her re-election effort. But he wants to ensure that, should she lose, the blame lies squarely with her.
Indeed, Seehofer is less interested in the federal election than he is in the Bavarian state election that will follow a year later. The CSU currently enjoys an absolute majority in state parliament and the party boss wants to ensure that it is preserved. Should conflicts with Merkel become necessary to make this happen, he won't shy away from them -- even if it hurts the conservatives' chances in the coming general election.
There are plenty of contentious issues. One example is Merkel's approach to Russia. Seehofer considers sanctions against Russia to be the wrong approach and takes advantage of every opportunity to say as much. He sees himself as a representative of Bavarian industry, which wants to resume business with Russia and he has a meeting scheduled with Putin in Moscow next month. "Sixty percent of Bavarian economic output is based on exports," says Seehofer. "We shouldn't be going around the world wagging our fingers at others."
Seehofer believes that Merkel's approach to foreign policy is driven too much by morality. He's also not pleased that she used her first statement after Trump's election to give the president a blunt lecture on Western values. The Bavarian governor likewise soon plans to travel to Washington, with a businessman friend of his currently trying to make the necessary preparations with the White House.
Essentially, Seehofer hopes to establish a kind of parallel foreign policy for his state of Bavaria. But this is far from the only area where he may clash with the chancellor. The two are also at odds over Merkel's strategy of having established the CDU as a centrist party, thus neglecting its conservative grassroots. That is one reason Seehofer has clung to his demand for an upper limit on refugees. Merkel, though, has refused to give in. Last Monday in Munich, she said: "I do not intend to change my position" on the issue.
New Momentum for SPD
Schulz, for his part, doesn't intend to campaign against Merkel's refugee policies and also isn't likely to stir up sentiment against the EU the way Gerhard Schröder did in 1998, when he accused Brussels of "burning" through German money.
It's a recent Tuesday afternoon in the auditorium of a school in Pinneberg, a small town near Hamburg, and the place is packed with more than 300 pupils. It doesn't take long before Schulz begins talking about Europe. One-hundred years ago, he tells the students, young men "of your age" were pulled into war. And when he was a child, he continued, he constantly had to show his passport because he grew up in a part of Germany that borders the Netherlands and Belgium. It is not the kind of Europe he wants to return to, he tells his audience.
In terms of European policy, Schulz is closer to Kohl than he is to Merkel. He frames it in much bigger terms: solidarity, freedom, war and peace. For a while it seemed like viewing the EU in those terms was a thing of the past, almost sentimental. But now Trump is sitting in the White House and Marine Le Pen has her eyes on the French presidency. Everything that has been achieved in Europe is once again at stake. "Young people grew up with Europe," says Julien Bender, 31, the district head of the SPD party in the city of Freiburg. Since Schulz announced his candidacy, Bender says his chapter has gained 54 new members. "Europe is a very important issue for young people," he says.
Analysts at pollytix, a political polling and consulting firm, recognized this early on. Around a year ago, at a retreat held by the SPD's national committee, company CEO Jana Faus told SPD members that there was "enormous potential among youth. You're not taking advantage of it."
Schulz is now seeking to change that. "If Sigmar Gabriel had run, I would have voted for Merkel. Now, with Martin Schulz, that has changed," says Martin Urschel, a 29-year-old student at Oxford who is currently writing his Ph.D. dissertation on media dramaturgy. He's a classic swing voter and has voted in the past for the SPD, the CDU, the Greens and the FDP. He says he basis his voting decisions on concrete issues -- and on people.
'It's Now Up To Him'
Urschel says Martin Schulz has a clear and positive vision of the future, which is more important to him than Angela Merkel's pragmatism. Urschel discusses Schulz in a WhatsApp group together with his university friends and says he would like to see clearer statements from the SPD candidate about issues like pensions and the fight against tax evasion. "It's now up to him," says Urschel.
These, of course, are just individual voices and it is difficult to determine if they show a general trend. There are good reasons not to place too much faith in public opinion surveys, particularly since pollsters have been off the mark a number of times, most recently in the run-up to Brexit and to Trump's election.
When it comes to Schulz, German polling institute Insa seems to be going farthest out on a limb. Its most recent survey showed that 31 percent of voters would now cast their ballots for the SPD, putting the party slightly ahead of the CDU/CSU. "I couldn't believe the SPD figures," says Insa head Hermann Binkert. "We hadn't seen such a rapid ascent in the poll since we began conducting it." Of the 200 polls taken since 2012, he said that a change of about 2.5 percent was the "highest of highs."
Insa, of course, has been under fire for its evaluation methods for quite some time now. But other pollsters are also seeing a strong Schulz bump. In its surveys, pollster Forsa has seen the SPD climb 10 points to 31 percent. "Gabriel had a braking effect," says Forsa head Manfred Güllner. Many people who view themselves as Social Democrats in spirit didn't believe the SPD, as Merkel's junior coalition partner, could win under Gabriel and instead backed either Merkel, the Greens or the Left Party, Güllner says. Now they're returning to the SPD.
Both of Schulz's predecessors as SPD candidate --Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Peer Steinbrück -- also saw their poll numbers bump upwards after their nominations. Under Steinmeier, the SPD rose by four points in 2008, while under Steinbrück in 2012, it was three. But both lost their momentum.
That was partly a function of the candidates themselves, but also because voter fatigue over Merkel hadn't yet taken shape. When Gerhard Schröder ran against Kohl in 1998, the SPD experienced a seven percentage point bump and Schröder was able to stabilize those gains and win the election that fall. It isn't impossible that history will repeat itself this time around.
Still, there is a long way to go in an uncertain global political landscape and no pollsters were of a mind to go on record with a prediction. But it is safe to say that the chances for the Social Democrats are better than they have been in years.
Merkel's Party Lacks Schulz Strategy
Furthermore, the Christian Democrats don't yet have a strategy for stopping Schulz. The party is slowly going to have to start focusing on the candidate, CDU campaign chief Stefan Hennewig said during a morning meeting last week. Beyond that, a sense of helplessness prevailed. One thing those attending the meeting agreed upon is that they would not make an issue of Schulz's earlier addiction to alcohol or his lack of a high school diploma.
But how can they dent Schulz's campaign? Through direct attacks? Or would it be better to ignore him for now? Hennewig and Axel Tantzen, chief of staff to party Secretary-General Peter Tauber, debated these issues so vehemently that others nearby closed their office doors in annoyance. Even at the top of the party, there's a lack of agreement on the best way to handle Schulz. Merkel herself wants to hold back for now on direct attacks in order to prevent attracting more attention to the SPD candidate. But Finance Minister Schäuble has taken another tack, accusing the Social Democratic candidate of populism and of being full of "hot air" in his interview with SPIEGEL last week.
One thing the heads of the CDU party do believe is that the concept of "asymmetrical demobilization" no longer works. The idea behind the strategy had been to position Merkel as a nonpartisan centrist, making it difficult for the SPD to mobilize its own followers. The idea has been considered obsolete ever since the AfD demonstrated that polarization can also be used to win over previous nonvoters. During the 2013 campaign, a photo of Merkel may have sufficed for making a political statement, but it will no longer work today.
Within the CDU leadership ranks, officials are counting on a reverse Trump effect. They want to send the message that, in a world that is spinning out of control, Germans should cast their votes for security and reliability. The central message should be that of a chancellor who is an anchor of stability in a chaotic world.
It remains to be seen if such a strategy can gain traction. Within the Chancellery, officials have noted that Schulz is presenting himself as the anti-establishment candidate. That's not something that Merkel can credibly do. "It's not easy to awaken curiosity in people about a person they have known for more than 20 years," says one senior CDU official.
Digging for Dirt in Brussels
Many CDU politicians suspect they will be able to find fodder for critique from the years Schulz spent in the European Parliament in Brussels. Herbert Reul, who heads the group of Christian Democrats from Germany in the European Parliament, sent out a dossier to fellow parliamentarians in an email with the subject line: "preliminary list on Martin Schulz." In it, Reul called on parliamentarians to search for unfavorable stories about Schulz. "If you are aware of any relevant incidents involving Martin Schulz, we ask you to please get in touch with our office."
And it is true that Schulz didn't always act in as principled a manner as he now likes to claim. As president of the European Parliament, he built an alliance with conservative European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and also took pains to ensure his colleague was spared of what could have been an embarrassing parliamentary investigation. There are also questions surrounding payments to Schulz's advisor Markus Engels, who has since been tapped to head the SPD federal election campaign.
That campaign is, for the moment, just as embryonic as that of the CDU. Until a short time ago, KNSK, the ad agency responsible for the SPD's campaign, had assumed that Sigmar Gabriel would be its candidate. It is now moving quickly to plan for a Schulz run.
Avoiding the Issues
For the time being, it's likely that Schulz will avoid taking concrete positions. Will he introduce a wealth tax? Will pension levels be increased? And how much more will be invested in education? The fact that details can be troublesome proved a painful lesson for the Social Democrats in recent years, with former party boss Gabriel spending nights writing position papers that he hadn't coordinated with others and then mailing them out the next morning. Merkel was defter: She would leave things open right up to the end. In this campaign, the SPD is likely to do things differently.
As imprecise as many things still remain, one thing does appear to be certain: Schulz is not going to run a campaign full of Social Democratic pipe dreams. It's also clear that it is the candidate who will determine the party's policy platforms. One of the reasons that Peer Steinbrück's campaign proved so disastrous in 2013 was that the left wing of the party forced its ideas on the candidate, who came from the SPD's conservative wing. This left both wings unhappy and also drove voters away.
Another lesson learned from the failed 2009 and 2013 campaigns was the presentation of shadow cabinets, which Schulz has no plans to do. In the past, the introduction of the team has never really caught on and these shadow cabinets were sometimes so bloated that the party joked that not even the chancellor candidate could remember all their names. Instead, Schulz will praise the work done by SPD cabinet ministers in the current government: Andrea Nahles at the Labor Ministry, Manuela Schwesig at the Family Ministry and, of course, Sigmar Gabriel, who is now at the Foreign Ministry after spending several years handling the economics portfolio.
And what of Gabriel? One might think he is having a tough time digesting the Schulz hype. In fact, Merkel even pulled him aside at a cabinet meeting a week ago Wednesday and asked if all the publicity surrounding Schulz was painful for him. Not at all, Gabriel answered cheekily. It's not just within the SPD, he said, where there is apparently a great desire for change.
Melanie Amann, Matthias Bartsch, Sven Böll, Anna Claus, Christiane Hoffmann, Horand Knaup, Ralf Neukirch, Martin Pfaffenzeller, René Pfister, Sophia Schirmer, Barbara Schmid-Schalenbach and Steffen Winter