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German election 2017

Who is Martin Schulz, the SPD challenger to Angela Merkel?

The Social Democrat left his post as head of the European Parliament to challenge Angela Merkel. As he lags in the polls, Schulz holds on to the hope that his enthusiasm can convince voters to abandon "aloof" Merkel.

Martin Schulz is from Würselen, a city of just 38,000 residents, just north of Aachen, in the far west of Germany. His roots there go deep: he grew up there, served as the city's mayor for 11 years from 1987 until 1998, ran a bookshop there with his sister, and still lives there today.

Until this year, Schulz was more a European politician than a domestic one. He was a European parliamentarian, the leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party's (SPD) national group in Europe, and the leader of the EU socialists' block. He was the socialists' top candidate in the 2014 European election, and served as the president of the European Parliament from 2012 to 2017.

Martin Schulz wearing the mayoral chain of Würselen

Martin Schulz became the mayor of the small town of Würselen in 1988 at the age of 31

But now, Schulz is challenging Angela Merkel in Germany's general election. He is the fourth Social Democrat opponent Merkel may beat at the polls.

Read more: Martin Schulz is too desperate - too soon, writes DW's Michaela Küfner

'I was a pig'

Born in 1955 as the son of a policeman, Martin Schulz, was the youngest of five children. He dreamt of a sporting career as a football player - but a knee injury put an end to those aspirations. He became an alcoholic as a teen and did not complete his high school graduation.

Martin Schulz and Inge Schulz holding hands and smiling

Martin Schulz has been married to Inge Schulz, an architect, for 30 years

In the mid-1970s, at age 20, he was unemployed for a year. Today, Schulz speaks openly about his past: "I was a pig, and not a very nice student."

But he was also active in the SPD during that time. When he became his city's mayor at age 32, it made him the youngest city leader in all of North Rhine-Westphalia. Schulz has also been a member of the SPD's national party leadership since 1999, serving on the executive board and executive committee - he proudly stresses that his 18 years there make him the party's "oldest serving member."

Read more: The SPD, Germany's oldest party

Not one to mince words

Schulz rarely avoids a confrontation, but that may also be what makes him seem so fresh when it comes to debating political issues at home in Germany. 

Shortly after his nomination in January 2017, he told the German Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that fairness and democracy were being called into question these days.

"Desperation threatens democracy," he said. "When people have the feeling that they are doing something for society but that society isn't doing anything for them, doesn't respect them, then they become radical. When people are not being protected by democracy, they look for alternatives."

Schulz speaks clearly when it comes to confronting the spread of right-wing populism, too: "I am often accused of being too impulsive. But you won't get anywhere with right-wing extremists if you use finely crafted arguments. Sometimes a rough block calls for a rough chisel."

Martin Schulz kicking a ball in the Cologne football stadium

Martin Schulz has always had a passion for football

Strong words on Russia, the EU ... and Trump

In 2016, Schulz stated that Donald Trump was a problem "for the whole world," and linked his election success to that of far-right populism in Europe. He called Trump an "irresponsible man" who "boasts about not having a clue."

Read more: Martin Schulz accuses Angela Merkel of being soft on Trump

Schulz has proven time and again, in Brussels and Strasbourg, that he can pack a punch on the issues that will confront him in German domestic politics. On Russia under President Vladimir Putin: "What Russia is doing is entirely unacceptable. The societal concept, the worldview, behind Russia's aggressive actions has absolutely nothing in common with our European philosophy of mutual respect."

And on his favorite project, the European Union: "The EU finds itself in a woeful state. Centrifugal, extreme forces within it are winning elections and referendums. If we start to question the core of the European project now, we are playing with the future of our next generation."

An uphill battle

Pope Francis and Martin Schulz smiling

As President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz — a devout Catholic — had the opportunity to greet Pope Francis in Brussels in 2014

Despite his enthusiasm, unseating Chancellor Merkel is looking increasingly unlikely for Schulz. Although he led briefly in the polls in January and February, right after his candidacy was announced, the so-called "Schulz effect" that sent the SPD's numbers soaring looks like nothing more than short-lived hype.

Schulz peaked at 50 percent in the polls in February, while Merkel languished at 34 percent. However, with three weeks to go until the election, the numbers almost completely reversed with Merkel at 52 percent and Schulz at 30 percent.

Schulz remains committed to convincing apathetic voters to head to the polls and cast a vote in his name on September 24. "I will be chancellor," he told pubic broadcaster ZDF in August. A few weeks later, he called out Merkel for being "aloof" and out of touch, reminding the public that the last four years of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl's 16-year tenure were nothing short of "political stagnation."

Read all you need to know about the German election

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