With Schulz and Merkel neck-and-neck in the polls, we talk to senior CDU MP and German deputy finance minister Jens Spahn. Does he think Merkel can win a fourth term in what she expects to be her toughest election yet?
As the march against ‘elites’ reached Washington in January for the inauguration of Donald Trump, populism’s standard-bearers in Europe remain hopeful that a similar upset could be possible in their own general elections.
But while far-right candidates like Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands look likely to push more conventional politicians to the wire, in Germany Angela Merkel is presented with a different problem.
Martin Schulz, another moderate, has been in the ascendant since his Social Democratic Party (SPD) selected him as its nominee for chancellor, drawing level with Merkel in recent opinion polls and energizing his party's supporters in the process.
This week’s guest on Conflict Zone, Jens Spahn, is described by some as the CDU’s own rising star and tipped as a possible future chancellor.
Does he believe Angela Merkel has what it takes to win a fourth term as chancellor? And, after 12 years in power, do the Christian Democrats have the energy and ideas to fend off a new challenge?
"[The SPD] are waking up," said Spahn, but he denied this was a problem for his party and their prospects, and instead was a development in the interest of "real democrats".
"If there is no controversial debate about the future of the country, of the future of society within the political center, then people search for the extreme wings."
A recent poll has shown support for Germany’s own far-right candidates, Alternative for Germany (AfD), has dropped from 15 percent to ten percent, suggesting that voters are indeed turning away from them in favor of mainstream parties, including the SPD.
Whether Schulz’s appeal withstands the election campaign proper remains to be seen, but the CDU has wasted no time in criticizing the man seeking to replace Merkel, with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble drawing comparisons between Schulz’s rhetoric and that of Donald Trump.
Spahn, a deputy of Schäuble’s at the finance ministry, was also quick to dismiss Schultz’s rise, telling Michel Friedman: "We are talking about a guy smiling around, giving some speeches, which is OK, but I want to know what he believes in. All I know is that he's more in favor of a communistic government in Athens than he is for the German taxpayer."
Ahead of September’s German elections there is pressure on Merkel to defend her refugee policy and convince the electorate she can solve the problems it has created.
Her government will therefore be keen to stress to those skeptical of her leadership that asylum seekers whose application to stay in Germany has failed are being sent home.
Merkel’s coordinator of refugee affairs, Peter Altmaier, recently said a record number will be deported in the coming year.
And while the debate about the refugee crisis is a more specific and recent one, a public conversation about immigration generally is something Spahn says should have happened years ago.
"[Germany is] the second biggest immigration country in the world … but so far … we haven't debated enough. From my point of view, what do we expect actually from these immigrants? What do we offer them on the one hand and on the other hand what do we expect? Is it just obeying the laws or do we expect them to become part of society, living with us, not next to us."
Turkey remains an important ally for Germany in efforts to tackle the refugee crisis, but diplomatic relationships have taken a decidedly worse turn in recent days.
On 14 February, Deniz Yücel, a Turkish-German journalist working for German daily newspaper Die Welt, became the first German journalist to be detained there and was charged with being a member of a terrorist organization and spreading propaganda.
Voices of condemnation across German politics and media included Chancellor Merkel, who called Yücel’s detention "bitter and disappointing" and "disproportionately harsh".
Was this evidence that Turkey, also a partner in Nato, was no longer a democratic country?
"It is on a very dangerous path," Jens Spahn told Conflict Zone.
The CDU MP also said that Yücel had not been fairly treated despite turning himself into police and his dual citizenship showed being a German and Turkish passport holder "doesn’t make it easier to solve such an issue."
Since the attempted coup last July, Turkey has imprisoned more than 120 journalists and media professionals ahead of trials, according to Amnesty International. Dozens of its media outlets have also been closed and, in December, Reporters Without Borders named it the worst country in the world for media freedom in 2016.