Is The Schultz Effect Fizzling Out?

Is The Schultz Effect Fizzling Out?

04/2017  | Reading time: 12 minutes

Two and a half months ago, the nomination of Martin Schulz for chancellor candidate of the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany) raised quite an attention throughout Europe. The politician, who – owing to his confrontational attitude and faux pas – was a rather controversial figure during his tenure as President of the European Parliament, stands in sharp contrast to the seemingly more considered Merkel, in whose political vocabulary harsh words have only seldom turned up. 

The decision was received well by the voters as both his and his party’s soaring popularity rates shortly after indicated. Certain events since then call for caution, however, casting doubt on the persistence of the so-called Schulz effect.

The big coalition and its drawbacks

An Eastern European observer may feel envy at the sight of Germany’s remarkable political stability. One of its palpable indicators, a big coalition between the two mass parties at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, is a hard-to-imagine scenario in most of the countries beyond the Elbe. The marriage, however, which had precursors throughout the history of the Bundesrepublik, has been a strained one in its current form serving the interests of the CDU (Christian Democratic Union of Germany) apparently better than those of its left-wing partner. As its approval ratings plummeted, even reaching a 24-years-low in 2016, the SPD came close to an existential crisis. And even though Angela Merkel proved to be extremely apt at expedient political manoeuvres, this miserable performance cannot be construed only as the flip-side of her successful performance. The SPD has struggled to maintain a distinctive profile in the government for too long and failed to come up with credible answers to the questions the voters found most intriguing. This inability had the foreseeable consequence of strengthening populist and extremist movements which stood ready to give voice to the discontented.

Sigmar Gabriel and Angela Merkel: This was the last time, Angela!

Domestic problems of the SPD

 Or alternatively, is it the loss of attractiveness of leftist ideas to blame for the downward spiral the SPD found itself in? Two election pundits invited by the party during the previous autumn to investigate the causes would disagree. They came to the conclusion that the problems of the SPD are more person-related than ideological. According to them some of the measures the party fought for enjoyed widespread approval, however from the 37% of the voters who would potentially vote for the party, relatively few showed readiness to put their trust in Sigmar Gabriel, its official leader and vice-chancellor. After this serious blow to his ambitions, Gabriel tried to avoid speculations regarding his political future till January, when he declared in a Stern interview his intention to resing from the party leadership and the candidacy for chancellorship recommending Martin Schulz for both positions instead. He did not go empty-handed, however, replacing the SPD’s most popular politician, Walter Steinmeier, as foreign minister, who was about to be elected as Germany’s new president. The farewell of the party’s two prominent figures left Schulz with a relatively big space to operate, which he certainly needs if he is to renew the SPD in the face of new challenges.

The power of surprise

Schulz is a determined, self-confident politician, who, in spite of having been a member of the SPD Presidium since 1999, managed to remain a maverick in the public eye. Hailing from a simple background and effectively using plain but emotionally filled phrases, he is also able to cultivate a popular “one of us” image.

Martin Schulz: Yes, I’m coming!

The enthusiasm in March at the party conference, which elected him unanimously to the head of the SPD and later to official candidate for chancellor, clearly showed this. The attendees seemed convinced that they found the man of the hour who would regain the lost self-confidence of the party and lead it into victory in September. A hope which was supported by opinion polls: Schulz’s appearance in the domestic politics on itself was enough to boost the popularity of his party remarkably, helping it to trespass even the 30% threshold in early February – a ten percentage point increase within only two weeks (see the chart below).

This stunt made the SPD at once a serious challenger of its coalition partner, certainly surprising the leadership of the CDU, whose reactions went from speechlessness through defamation to calculated optimism as time passed by. Nevertheless, the inconvenient truth is that the CDU needs a strong competitor. Merkel’s tactic to sideline all of her critics did not suppress dissent in her camp, as – among others – the often erupting tension between her and Horst Seehofer, the Bavarian prime minister, indicates. The arrival of Schulz could, however, force the party to achieve unity and leave behind its worn-out argumentation, which labelled almost every measure as “alternativlos” (without any alternative) for something ideologically more substantial.

Angela Merkel and Horst Seehofer, Please, not now, Horst!
Source: DiePresse

The new way of Schulz

Schulz won the sympathy of the voters by falling back on classical leftist values. He declared fight against social inequality promising thereby to steer the party away from its neoliberal course, an open attack on the so called Agenda 2010, an overarching program implemented by the second Schröder cabinet from 2003 on to combat unemployment and fundamentally restructure the social system. It has been regarded as a great success by prominent representatives of the SPD ever since but drew criticism from experts for contributing to the creation of precarious jobs and increasing social insecurity. For Schulz, the good news is that – somewhat contrary to expectations – opposing factions of the SDP did not engage in overt conflict over his reform plan. The bad news, on the other hand, is that his program, which exists still in sketches, was either not convincing enough or just not conveyed satisfyingly as it failed to exercise the-hoped-for effect on the first significant showdown between the two big parties.

Don’t touch it, Martin!

Practical tests for the Schulz effect

Although the approval ratings of the SPD began to approach or even surpass (?) that of the CDU in early February and Schulz’s popularity index raised every now and then over Merkel’s, the result of the parliament election in Saarland at the end of March called for caution regarding his real political potential. Previously, Merkel achieved electoral victories by taking over the themes of the other side, avoiding irritating issues and remaining as vague as possible. This strategy, which was aimed at lulling enthusiasm and decreasing voter turnout, payed out very well as it affected her own voters less strongly than those of her opponents. But this time, the CDU found something to play on actively. Namely, the pervasive fear that in case of an SPD triumph it could come to a “red-red-green” alliance involving also the distant relative of the former communist party of East Germany, Die Linke (The Left). CDU voters were alarmed and showed up in great number at the ballot boxes. Since the SDP was not able to come up with a political antidote and mobilize better, it achieved exactly the same result as five years earlier.

Oskar Lafontaine, Leader of Die Linke: Come a bit closer!

Whether this pattern will continue is one of the questions of the two other imminent state elections set to take place in early May. Recent pools see both in Schleswig-Holstein and in Nordrhein-Westfalen the SPD ahead, but coalition building may be tricky – a problem which is likely to recur at federal level, should the SPD perform well. Firstly, although Schulz has not directly excluded this scenario, a big coalition – even under SPD leadership – has become a less attractive one considering its obvious political ramifications. Secondly, a red-red-green solution is presumably off the table due to the above mentioned reasons as well as to a foreseeably strong internal resistance within the SPD. Thirdly, an “Ampelkoalition” (Traffic Light Coalition) in which the FDP (Free Democratic Party) would replace Die Linke could founder either on internal disagreements or – sooner than that – on the FDP failing to gain representation in the Bundestag. It has to be noted, however, that such a coalition works well in Rheinland-Pfalz and both the SPD and the FDP expressed interest in a collaboration with the Die Grünen (The Green Party). Fourthly, no party, which is to survive politically, can seriously contemplate any cooperation with the radical right-wing AfD (Alternative for Germany).

After the counting

Independently from the results of the election, the external challenges awaiting the next chancellor make those posed by a successful campaign seem just negligible. Although the migrant crisis put a huge strain on the German society causing overt discontent, the processes the new government must fear the most have been occurring beyond the national borders. As a remarkable populist wave sweeps through Europe, cooperation becomes even harder in the time when unity would be most needed: apart from the difficulties arisen in conjunction with the changing international order, solutions to a wide range of problems plaguing the EU since years have become overdue. Germany, however, the big winner of the advanced integration whose position as the leader of the European politics stays uncontested, has to face the possible loss of its ally, France, as well as the consequences of its adamant support for austerity measures and migrant quotas. Whether Schultz – should he be the triumphant one –, who is known for being an enthusiastic proponent of the European idea but also an outspoken person, can master the ensuing problems remains to be seen.


Opening pic by Twitter

Register and subscribe to access all contents on AJKC Digital!

Are you interested in the latest articles by our researchers? Would you like to be the first to read our analyses? Then submit your registration now!

Do you seek a platform with all the knowledge you need to subscribe to? Where you will find not only deep analyses but content related to exclusive online events? Don’t hesitate then, order now one of our subscription packages available for a reduced price!