Schulz can win if he re­claims pop­ulism for the left

Financial Times Middle East - - Comment - Sla­womir Sier­akowski

Ger­many’s left-of-centre So­cial Democrats( S PD) are cur­rently run­ning the gov­ern­ing Chris­tian Democrats (CDU) neck and neck in opin­ion polls. But ac­cord­ing to a re­cent sur­vey pub­lished in the news­pa­per Tagesspiegel, 55.8 per cent of Ger­mans be­lieve that the SPD’s high rat­ings are only tem­po­rary, despite the wide ap­peal of Martin Schulz, the party’s newly elected leader and can­di­date for chan­cel­lor. The SPD needs a de­ci­sive vic­tory in Septem­ber’s par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in or­der to avoid a coali­tion with the CD U or the hard-left Die Linke.

The lat­ter would be a dif­fi­cult part­ner for the SPD given that it is pro-Rus­sian, paci­fist and hos­tile to­wards the EU. An­other“grand coali­tion” with the CD U, mean­while, would be dis­as­trous for Ger­man democ­racy be­cause it would mean that rather than fac­ing a choice be­tween right and left, vot­ers would be forced to choose be­tween the es­tab­lish­ment and the pop­ulists.

Across the western world, the left is in cri­sis be­cause it has be­come elit­ist rather than pop­u­lar, cen­trist rather than so­cial democratic, lib­eral in­stead of pop­ulist and cos­mopoli­tan in­stead of na­tional. If Mr Schulz wants to achieve a break­through, he will have to re­claim pop­ulism for the left.

In the­ory, Mr Schulz is the em­bod­i­ment of ev­ery­thing pop­ulists hate: Euro-federalism and the ar­ro­gance of Brus­sels elites. But, para­dox­i­cally, he has what it takes to steal pop­ulism back from the right. He comes from the people — he was born into the large fam­ily of a small-town po­lice­man — is an au­to­di­dact with­out a high school diploma and, like many pop­ulists of the right, knows no shame.

While the “Schulz ef­fect” shows no sign of wan­ing any time soon, sup­port for the pop­ulist, anti-im­mi­gra­tion Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many (AfD) has fallen from 15 per cent to 8.5 per cent, while Die Linke has slipped in the polls from 10 per­cent to 7 per­cent. Un­til now, the pop­ulists’ recipe for suc­cess has been sim­ple, a post­mod­ernist ver­sion of an old for­mula: so­cial­ism mixed with na­tion­al­ism. In its cur­rent form, this amounts to op­po­si­tion to the so­cial costs of glob­al­i­sa­tion and to im­mi­grants.

Although he once sup­ported for­mer SPD chan­cel­lor Ger­hard Schröder’s Agenda 2010 labour mar­ket re­forms, he has now de­cided to un­der­mine them by call­ing for the ex­pan­sion of as­sis­tance for the un­em­ployed. What is the point of de­fend­ing Agenda 2010, he rea­sons, if the SPD con­tin­ues to lose elec­tions?

In many lib­eral democ­ra­cies, the left faces an un­com­fort­able dilemma: ei­ther sup­port an open-door pol­icy for refugees and lose elec­tions to pop­ulists, or ac­qui­esce to pub­lic fears and thereby give it­self a chance to de­feat pop­ulism.

Chan­cel­lor Angela Merkel’s CDU has found it­self in a sim­i­lar po­si­tion dur­ing the refugee cri­sis. With Agenda 2010, the left did the work of the right, and then paid the price. With the refugee ques­tion, it is the op­po­site: Ms Merkel has done the work of the left and is pay­ing for it. This is why, un­like centre-left par­ties else­where, Mr Schulz does not have to change his po­si­tion on refugees.

And in re­sponse to what is hap­pen­ing in the US, Rus­sia and China, Mr Schulz should es­pouse a new kind of Euro­pean na­tion­al­ism — na­tion­al­ist in form, pro-Euro­pean in con­tent. When Don­ald Trump, US pres­i­dent, next at­tacks Ger­many and poses a threat to its ex­port­based econ­omy, Mr Schulz can rouse do­mes­tic eco­nomic pa­tri­o­tism, while point­ing out that Euro­pean in­te­gra­tion is also the only plau­si­ble path for devel­op­ment and se­cu­rity for other Euro­pean coun­tries.

A con­fronta­tion with Mr Trump may serve to rally vot­ers around Mr Schulz, rather than around Ms Merkel, who is too re­strained in her re­sponse to pop­ulism. It is time for a leader who can say “The EU first!” and snatch pop­ulism back from the right.

The writer is the head of Kry­tyka Poli­ty­czna and direc­tor of the In­sti­tute for Ad­vanced Study in War­saw

An­other grand coali­tion with the CDU would be dis­as­trous for Ger­man democ­racy

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