Schulz can win if he reclaims populism for the left
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