Challenge from left’s new saviour Martin Schulz fades among voters content with economic success.
Not long ago, he was seen as a bearer of hope, not just for his own party, Germany’s Social Democrats, but for the whole of the embattled European left. He was nicknamed “Sankt Martin”, the man who had the potential to topple Angela Merkel from her throne after almost 12 years and bring a wave of fresh ideas that would reinvigorate a political landscape turned staid by her long-term presence.
Martin Schulz, 61, was even being looked to closely by Jeremy Corbyn’s advisers at a time when the Labour leader was struggling to mobilise support. They marvelled at how he had burst on to Berlin’s political stage and was inspiring a new generation of young voters, while encouraging those who had abandoned the party to return in their thousands.
Now, with six weeks to go until Germans go to the polls, Schulz is trailing Merkel miserably and already appears to be settling for a seat on the Bundestag opposition benches. “The SPD candidate is toiling hard, but no one is taking any notice,” wrote leading commentator Heribert Prantl in an editorial for the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
The polls show Schulz’s SPD trailing Merkel’s CDU/CSU alliance by about 14%, having been almost neck-and-neck just a few months ago. Polling analysts are not so much blaming Schulz’s campaign, which has seen him off on an energetic tour across Germany at the same time as Merkel has been happily relaxing in the South Tyrol, but on the strength of his opponent’s brand, the sense of reliability she exudes, and the continuity she will offer a Germany that is on an economic high.
The trust she inspires was reinforced last week by pictures of Merkel and her husband, Joachim Sauer, wearing the same outfits they have worn for many years in a row, while they always visit the same hotel and stay in the same room.
Prantl says the decision to vote for Merkel is the equivalent of a gambler who is happy to break even. “People are still satisfied with ‘being in the black’ with Merkel,” says Prantl, “because in a world that is topsy-turvy and being ruled by so many crazy people, they’d quite like to keep her, simply because she’s not mad, but capable and experienced.”
When Schulz arrived in Berlin, having spent the previous two decades on the European political scene, latterly as president of the European parliament, he attracted thousands of new – and former – recruits to the SPD, after two decades in which it had haemorrhaged support. The party’s standing in the polls rose by 10 percentage points. He went on to receive a record 100% of the votes to become the party leader. The SPD’s euphoria was expressed in T-shirts emblazoned with his bespectacled, bearded face, along with the slogan “Time for Martin” and red balloons printed with the words “A breath of fresh air”. He was greeted with screams and cheers when he entered rooms full of SPD members.
But the Schulz effekt, as it was called, proved short-lived. The party suffered setbacks in regional elections, and despite Schulz expressing the importance of social justice – Gerechtigkeit – his campaign buzzword, at a time of a widening rich-poor divide, the euphoria ebbed amid complaints there was little substance in his plans for Germany.
The traditional base of the SPD is still smarting over the labour reforms introduced by the last SPD chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, which were key to Germany’s economic recovery and its ability to cast off the label “sick man of Europe”.
Schulz has promised to address the growing inequality for which Schröder is blamed. The SPD, as junior partner in Merkel’s grand coalition for the past four years, is credited with having pushed through legislation on a minimum wage. But the poorest 20% of Germans have yet to see better living standards. On paper the employment statistics look good, with Germany on track to have zero unemployment in the next three years. But increasing numbers of workers are in poorly paid, unstable work. Many voters are therefore said to be deciding on the steady pair of hands, rather than taking a risk, or deciding not to vote at all.
Alexander Wallasch is one of many commentators expressing unease about the dominance of Merkel, pointing out the particular irony that she is now as popular as she was before the refugee crisis two summers ago, when her controversial decision to open Germany’s doors led many to predict she would be forced out of office.
“What is wrong with German voters?” Wallasch asked in the liberal conservative online magazine Tichys Einblick. “How can it be that the CDU with Angela Merkel at the helm is currently enjoying 40% support? Is it just a lack of alternatives?” Or, he goes so far as to suggest, “a type of Stockholm syndrome” – referring to the condition whereby a victim in a hostage-taking develops feelings of trust or affection towards their captor.
Even more extraordinary is Merkel’s popularity among young people, in particular first-time voters, none of whom are likely to remember a Germany when Merkel was not in the driving seat. An opinion poll by Forsa in June showed that 57% of those aged 18 to 21 would support Merkel as chancellor, compared with 53% of all voters. By contrast, Schulz’s backing from the same age group was only 21%.
But headlines have been dominated by the surprise revelation last week that Merkel, back from her Tyrolean hiking tour, had suffered a 10-point slide in her personal popularity, down to 59%. A political analyst, Heiko Funke, blamed her relaxed attitude towards the election campaign, fallout from the anti-G20 protests in Hamburg last month, a knife attack by an Islamist, and the scandal over diesel cars. “The voters would have liked to have seen more involvement by Merkel,” according to political scientist Carsten Koschmieder of Berlin’s Otto-Suhr-Institut for political science.
Karl-Rudolf Korte, a political analyst from Duisburg, said despite Merkel and the CDU’s strong poll showing it would be a mistake to view the election on 24 September as a foregone conclusion. “As we’ve already seen, within just a few days or weeks problematic situations can arise,” he said. “Moments of crisis can quickly cause broad sections of voters to change their minds at the last minute.”