Vic­to­ri­ous Schulz ready to take on Merkel

Unan­i­mous vote for new leader at SPD congress Chan­cel­lor faces bat­tle to re­tain power in Septem­ber

The Guardian - - INTERNATIONAL - Kate Con­nolly Ber­lin

Ger­many’s So­cial Democrats have voted over­whelm­ingly for the for­mer Euro­pean par­lia­ment pres­i­dent Martin Schulz to be­come the party’s new head and the main chal­lenger to An­gela Merkel in Septem­ber’s gen­eral elec­tion.

Schulz, 61, has emerged in re­cent weeks as Ger­many’s answer to the US Demo­crat Bernie San­ders, earn­ing sup­port in par­tic­u­lar among young vot­ers who have dubbed him the party’s “fresh wind”. He se­cured a record 605 out of 605 votes at a spe­cial party con­fer­ence in Ber­lin yes­ter­day, beat­ing even Kurt Schu­macher, the party’s pop­u­lar post­war leader, who se­cured 99.71% of the vote in 1948.

“Start­ing now, the fight be­gins to be­come the top party in the coun­try and take over the chan­cellery,” Schulz told the party congress.

Com­men­ta­tors pre­dicted that Schulz could be­come the most pop­u­lar So­cial Demo­crat since the cold war era chan­cel­lor Willy Brandt.

Schulz, who apart from serv­ing as a pro­vin­cial mayor for sev­eral years has not held a high-pro­file po­lit­i­cal post in Ger­many but in­stead has made his ca­reer in Euro­pean pol­i­tics, called the re­sult the “pre­lude to con­quest of the chan­cellery”.

“This is an over­whelm­ing mo­ment for me and for us all,” Schulz told the meet­ing. Shortly af­ter­wards the strains of Louis Arm­strong’s What a Won­der­ful World filled the con­fer­ence hall.

Yes­ter­day, a poll showed a left-lean­ing al­liance led by the SPD would po­ten­tially have enough sup­port to oust Merkel from power in cru­cial par­lia­men­tary elec­tions ex­pected to be held on Septem­ber 24.

Merkel’s con­ser­va­tive Chris­tian Demo­crat-Chris­tian So­cial Union (CDU/CSU) al­liance cur­rently has 33% sup­port. The SPD has 32%.

If the SPD were to join with the far-left Linke, cur­rently on 8%, and the Greens, also on 8%, they would have enough to form a coali­tion gov­ern­ment.

In a speech to party mem­bers, a jubilant Schulz, who wiped away tears, pledged to sup­port the work­ing man and woman, and to en­sure so­cial jus­tice for all from the nurs­ery to re­tire­ment.

“We want the SPD to be the strong­est po­lit­i­cal force af­ter the fed­eral elec­tion so it gets a man­date to make this coun­try bet­ter and fairer and to give the peo­ple of this coun­try the re­spect they de­serve and I want, dear com­rades, to be the next Ger­man chan­cel­lor,” Schulz said.

He sharply at­tacked the rightwing pop­ulist AfD, cur­rently on 8% in the polls, com­pared the far-right protest group Pegida to sup­port­ers of Don­ald Trump and crit­i­cised a con­ser­va­tive pledge to re­duce taxes if re-elected as send­ing out a wrong sig­nal.

Schulz also re­peated his pledge to undo some of the rad­i­cal labour mar­ket re­forms in­tro­duced by Ger­hard Schröder, the last SPD chan­cel­lor, which are seen to have been the main rea­son for the SPD’s chronic poor stand­ing in the polls.

The SPD has for years trailed the CDU/ CSU, but its sup­port surged in Jan­uary when Schulz an­nounced his in­ten­tion to stand as its new leader, and Sig­mar Gabriel, the leader for the past seven and a half years, agreed to step down. The party has seen its poll rat­ings rise by around 10 points, as well as en­joy­ing a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in card-car­ry­ing mem­bers, af­ter years of losses.

Merkel’s con­ser­va­tives have been in power un­der her since 2005. They formed a coali­tion with the SPD in the first term, then joined up with the pro-busi­ness Free Democrats for their sec­ond, and in 2013 teamed up once again with the SPD.

Since Schulz came on the scene, the SPD has been feel­ing that its first chance for years to wrest back power is fi­nally in sight. Merkel is still the most pop­u­lar choice for chan­cel­lor, with 46% say­ing they would choose her in a di­rect vote, against 38% for Schulz.

But with six months to go, and ob­servers say­ing the weari­ness of vot­ers to­wards Merkel could well grow in that time, the so-called Schulz Ef­fekt may yet make its im­pact felt far more than would have been thought pos­si­ble even a few weeks ago.

San­ders is be­ing seen as some­thing of a role model for Schulz, with young Ger­mans in par­tic­u­lar hav­ing be­come newly politi­cised fol­low­ing the Trump and Brexit vic­to­ries. Schulz ral­lies typ­i­cally at­tract hun­dreds of young peo­ple, many of whom are keen to get self­ies with the for­mer book­shop owner and re­formed al­co­holic.

Hand­ing over the ba­ton, Gabriel, who re­cently be­came Ger­many’s for­eign min­is­ter, de­scribed Schulz’s ar­rival as “the most joy­ful and op­ti­mistic trans­fer to a new leader that this party has ex­pe­ri­enced in decades”. He added that, for his part,

‘Start­ing now, the fight be­gins to be­come the top party and take over the chan­cellery’

Pho­to­graph: John MacDougall/ AFP/Getty

Martin Schulz cel­e­brat­ing his unan­i­mous elec­tion as leader of Ger­many’s So­cial Demo­cratic party yes­ter­day

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