Victorious Schulz ready to take on Merkel
Unanimous vote for new leader at SPD congress Chancellor faces battle to retain power in September
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’
Martin Schulz celebrating his unanimous election as leader of Germany’s Social Democratic party yesterday