Explaining the Martin Schulz phenomenon

The Länder election in the Saarland is a dampener for the SPD. Nevertheless, Martin Schulz is bringing hope to the center-left all over Europe. The former president of the European Parliament is benefitting from the fact that the EU is seen as an increasingly positive issue in Germany. To remain successful, he must make tough policy choices and answer questions on how the SPD will finance its promises. 

In Germany, elections in the powerful states (“Länder”) are traditionally seen as test drives for the federal level. This is why the election in the small Saarland last weekend received so much attention: it was the first one since Martin Schulz was elected as the new SPD-chairman and became a frontrunner for the federal elections in September. As the CDU won and the SPD got fewer votes than predicted, some commentators have argued that the current momentum of the SPD is already coming to an end. Although the result was a dampener, this interpretation is greatly exaggerated. 29.7 per cent is not a bad result compared to the 24 per cent predicted by pollsters in January. Plus, the political configuration in the Saarland differs largely from federal level, with an immensely popular incumbent Minister President and a very polarizing Left party.

The resurrection of the SPD, which is now at eye-level with the conservatives in nation-wide polling, is not just media hype. It is real and can be explained. Four reasons for the “Schulz-effect” seem the most relevant to us.

First, Martin Schulz is the ideal candidate for the moment. He is an excellent public speaker, being able to express passion, empathy and warmth, but also embodying the toughness and hands-on approach which appeals to traditional social democratic voters. The fact that the former president of the European Parliament has not been visible on a federal level before can be considered an advantage, too. Schulz started his political career as Mayor of his hometown Würselen in North Rhine-Westphalia in the 80s and 90s, before joining the European Parliament in 1994. Therefore, he was not actively involved (or potentially damaged) in the severe fights inside the SPD about the social reform agenda of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, nor is he to blame for unpopular decisions made by the current government. Surprisingly for someone who had been a member of the European Parliament for 23 years, Schulz can be portrayed as an outsider, a maverick to the political establishment in Berlin, thus tapping into the discontent and anger with political elites to be observed around the western world.

Yet what really makes up Martin Schulz’s credibility for many people is his difficult life history in his early years, including problems with alcohol. It is an American dream-style story of a struggling person making it to the top. At the last party conference in Berlin, he described his journey: “I was very lazy in school and I only had football in my head as a young man. When the football career did not happen and I had dropped out of high school, I got lost in my life. Almost, everything in my life would have gone wrong. But then I got a second chance.”

This leads us to the second reason for the current success. Martin Schulz made social justice the core issue of his campaign. During his travels through Germany in recent weeks, he picked up stories about injustice – at social care facilities, in schools, at police stations –, which he now keeps telling his audience. Putting social justice at the forefront struck a nerve in German society. Although the German economy is strong and the unemployment rate is low, many Germans are sceptical with regard to their personal future – be it with regard to pensions, the life chances of the young generation, or in terms of social cohesion. This form of scepticism about the future is especially strong among potential SPD-voters. With the social justice theme, Martin Schulz can build on the widely conceded good work of social democratic ministers in government, including the introduction of the minimum wage, new family policies, and the outstanding efforts to integrate refugees.

The third reason is – somewhat naturally – a general fatigue with Angela Merkel after 12 years in office. While Schulz radiates an unbreakable lust for the Chancellor´s office, Merkel comes across as if another term would be a burden she is only bearing because of her protestant ethics. Asked who should become Chancellor, 44 percent of voters opt for Merkel, but the same number choses Schulz, which is a remarkable figure. In addition to that, the conservative sister parties CDU and CSU, who are deeply divided on dealing with the refugees, are not prepared for organising an election campaign against a party on an equal footing. What is clear is that Merkel´s strategy of asymmetric demobilisation – the attempt to keep social democratic voters off the ballots by leaning to the left – will not work in these newly politicised times.

Fourthly: the EU is a positive issue now. One of the arguments against Martin Schulz before he was announced as frontrunner was that he is a convinced European. Yes, Germans are generally more pro-European than other nations. But would he get the message across that he wants to defend Germany´s national interests, maybe even against the interest of other member states? Had he not been in favour of Eurobonds and did he not take a rather moderate stance towards Greece in the EP?

I have tried as President of the EP to make Europe more democratic, effective and visible, and above all one thing: to show a tough stance against those who want to unwind this work of unification! I am their energetic opponent.

Martin Schulz

As of today, these concerns have been unfounded. For more and more Germans, the EU is not seen as the Brussels technocracy any more, but rather as a defensive wall against Trump’s aggressive “America First” isolationism, Putin’s explosive geopolitical ambitions, as well as the uprising of nationalistic parties all over Europe. The grass-root movement “Pulse of Europe” is a result of this change of public opinion, too. “I have tried as President of the EP to make Europe more democratic, effective and visible, and above all one thing: to show a tough stance against those who want to unwind this work of unification! I am their energetic opponent”, Martin Schulz said in his speech at the conference – amid the applause of the crowd.

Does that sound too good to be true? In any case, there are pitfalls that could put the brakes on the “Schulz train”, as his campaign trail is called.

One concern is Martin Schulz´s approach of remaining vague with regard to concrete policies. Instead of talking numbers and measures, Schulz has decided to speak about values and abstract notions such as “more investments” or the fight against populism. This has made him somewhat invulnerable. However, in the upcoming run-up to the election manifesto, Martin Schulz will have to make decisions on key policy areas such as taxes and pensions. He will also have to provide answers on how much his promises will cost, i.e. education free of charge from childcare to university, the “family working time” idea, or restructuring the job agency into a qualification agency. Journalists will question how exactly he will generate the funding for these proposals. Until now, Schulz has only ruled out tax-cuts for the rich.  

Also, Schulz will have to take a position on the still most pressing issue of German politics: the refugee crisis and integration policy. He only shortly brushed upon this topic in his big party convention speech on March 19th. For good reasons: it is an issue where the two voter bases of the SPD – the liberal, more cosmopolitan middle class on the one hand and the traditional voters of the other hand – have very different attitudes and opinions. Finding a balance will not be easy.

Last but not least, the election in the Saarland has shown that the prospect of a governing coalition with the Left party still scares Germans away, many of whom said they voted for the CDU to prevent an alliance of the SPD and the Left party. Martin Schulz’s dilemma is that the main option to form a government, other than – again – a grand coalition, will probably be the least popular one: a coalition with the Left party and the Greens. It is foreseeable that during the federal election campaign, the conservatives will attack Schulz on the spectre of “red-red-green”. At the same time, many SPD party members are in favor of such a coalition. On the issue, Martin Schulz will have to weigh his words carefully.

Notwithstanding the potential bumps on the campaign road ahead, Martin Schulz is bringing hope to the center-left all over Europe. The core electorates might be shrinking. And voters are increasingly volatile. Yet with the right candidate, an optimistic attitude and a progressive agenda, it will be possible to reach out to new majorities.

This is an extended and slightly updated version of an article for FEPS & The Progressive Post on www.progressivepost.eu

Michael Miebach

Mitglied des Vorstands
Michael Miebach ist Vorstandsmitglied und Mitgründer des Progressiven Zentrums. Er studierte Politikwissenschaft an der Universität Göttingen und an der FU Berlin sowie "European Social Policy" an der London School of Economics. Er war bis 2017 Leitender Redakteur der Zeitschrift „Berliner Republik“ und arbeitet heute im Stab des Ostbeauftragten der Bundesregierung.

Dominic Schwickert

Geschäftsführer des Progressiven Zentrums
Dominic Schwickert ist seit Ende 2012 Geschäftsführer des Progressiven Zentrums. Er hat langjährige Erfahrung in der Politik- und Strategieberatung (u.a. Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, Bertelsmann Stiftung, IFOK GmbH, Stiftung Neue Verantwortung, Deutscher Bundestag, Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie).