Germany's political parties targeted SPD candidate Martin Schulz during their annual, insult-rife Ash Wednesday rallies. Schulz fired back in a speech, calling out "ultra-nationalism" and Merkel's conservative union.
With Germany's national elections only a few months away, Germany's traditional end-of-Carnival "Political Ash Wednesday" events set the tone for each party's upcoming campaigns.
The typical rhetorical restraint used by German politicians is thrown out of the window during the annual, beer-fueled rallies held by Germany's political parties. Instead, prominent German politicians rail against their opponents in cutting speeches rife with colorful insults.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-left challenger, Martin Schulz, fired up the crowd at the Social Democratic Party's (SPD) rally in the Bavarian town of Vilshofen. A crowd of around 5,000 SPD politicians and supporters waved signs bearing Schulz's name and greeted his speech with chants of: "Martin, Martin, Martin!"
Schulz emphasized that the SPD was entering the 2017 election campaign "to become the strongest political force in Germany" and that he intended to unseat Merkel as the next chancellor.
The SPD candidate also had some strong words for Merkel's conservative union between her Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). He called the union a "forced marriage," saying: "they don't talk to each other, they talk about one another...they are no longer that close."
He also targeted US President Donald Trump, saying that whoever attacks the media, "calls women's rights into question" or "slanders those with impairments, disabilities or minorities" must be criticized.
CSU: 'Bavaria First'
Meanwhile, a few kilometers away in Passau, CSU head Horst Seehofer echoed Trump's policy in his own push to make "Bavaria First" in Germany.
"Bavaria has the highest mountain in Germany and the lowest debt. Bavaria is special, Bavaria is a paradise," Seehofer told the beer-drinking crowd of 4,000 people.
Although Seehofer renewed his call for a yearly cap on refugees - a position that Merkel strongly opposes - he voiced his support for the German chancellor during his Ash Wednesday speech.
"As someone who has always loved to debate and argue and will always do so, I say to you: I know of no one other than Angela Merkel who can lead Germany on these global matters," Seehofer told the crowd.
Seehofer also targeted Schulz in his speech, warning the SPD candidate to use accurate statistical figures while campaigning, lest he come to be known as "Schulz the cheater" in Bavaria.
Merkel: SPD stuck in the past
Up in her home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Merkel took on a different approach than the other party heads in her Ash Wednesday speech. Rather than directly going after Schulz, Merkel took jabs at the SPD instead.
"The CDU is taking care of the future. The others can focus on the past," the chancellor said in an animated speech. Contrary to criticsm from the SPD about safety in Germany, Merkel said the CDU helped make Germany one of the safest countries in the world.
Merkel also urged the importance of freedom of expression and the freedom of press, saying that although "2017 will be an exciting year," political discussions "have to be respectful."
Speaking in the Bavarian town of Osterhofen, the populist, anti-immigration party Alterative for Germany (AfD) attempted to disprove accusations that the party lacks a sense of humor.
AfD co-head Frauke Petry said Schulz had to go to therapy for "pathological self-overestimation." She also insisted that the "ultimate joke" was that Schulz presented himself as a "grounded, small, social-democratic man from Würselen" after spending several years in Brussels as an EU politician.
News agency DPA reported that not many in the 900-person crowd laughed or applauded Petry during her speech.
Germany's business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) likewise bashed the social democrat candidate, painting him as their main opponent.
"Schulz is not about social justice. What drives him, rather, is social hypocricy," said FDP head Christian Lindner.
The Left Party, on the other hand, backed Schulz's campaign promises. Party leader Katja Kipping said Schulz's nomination has caused a "mood change" in German politics. However, she urged him to hold to his promise to roll back labor reforms.
Taking a different direction for their Ash Wednesday speeches, the Green party called for the release of Deniz Yucel, a German correspondent for "Die Welt" newspaper who was taken into custody in Turkey. Merkel also emphatically said the government would do everything in its power to ensure Yucel's release.
Germany's national elections are set to take place on September 24.
rs/jm (AP, AFP, dpa)