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Martin Schulz reenergizes SPD

Richard A. Fuchs
January 31, 2017

Martin Schulz has been nominated to run as the SPD chancellor candidate. Many people in the party are euphoric, but how will this new optimism change the Social Democrats?

Martin Schulz at SPD press conference
Image: Getty Images/AFP/O. Andersen

In recent months, Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has spent most of its time analyzing defeats and failures. Popularity hit rock bottom and remained at a record low of 20 percent. At the recent state elections in Baden-Württemberg and Saxony-Anhalt, the party lost over 10 percent of voters compared to previous elections. This resulted in a tormented struggle between the different wings and a lethargy which left many members in a desperate state, vacillating between resignation and helplessness.

Schulz gives impression things can happen

This is all water under the bridge now.  Thanks to Martin Schulz. Last weekend, Schulz was officially appointed new party chairman and SPD chancellor candidate for September's parliamentary elections. One day after his nomination, the former president of the EU Parliament showed his usual fighting spirit.

"I want to find practical solutions for the immediate concerns and needs of hard-working people," he said.

Comments like this drew standing ovations and minutes of frenetic applause from his party colleagues. Many insiders are already talking about the "Schulz Festival." The European politician has sparked a wave of confidence among his party colleagues through his striking choice of words and clear messages to political opponents.

This is also reflected in the polls. The SPD has gained a whopping three percentage points. "The mood is wonderful," proclaimed Schulz at his unveiling. And the cheerful faces of many SPD staff members at party headquarters the Willy-Brandt-Haus look like they are the embodiment of the message.

Staff hold up an Obama-style Schulz placard
SPD staff and grassroots members alike are pinnnig their hopes on Martin SchulzImage: Getty Images/S. Loos

Profile of the left will be polished

Ulrich Eith, a political party researcher at the University of Freiburg, explains that the euphoric mood within the SPD can be attributed to the breakdown of encrusted structures that have developed in the grand coalition between the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the SPD. Chancellor Angela Merkel, of the CDU, and her SPD deputy Sigmar Gabriel know each other well and have struck up a good working relationship over the years. "Martin Schulz jumps in between as a new, fresh face with his own personality, his own style of language and unmistakable views," Eith told DW.

Many party members feel he can rejuvenate the entrenched party competition. Schulz also comes across as authentic, down-to-earth and in touch with the people, thus giving the inner-party euphoria more impetus, according to Eith. "Many in the SPD see that disappointed voters cannot be recovered with a catalogue of measures with rational arguments. Schulz embodies an empathetic approach, which fits well the SPD's situation," said the researcher.

Hilde Mattheis, an SPD politician in the government's health policy committee is convinced that support for the new chancellor candidate will continue after the initial jubilation. "He puts the subject of social justice back exactly where it belongs in the SPD, which is the heart of our activities," Mattheis told DW. "We are, however, well aware of the fact that a lot has to be done in terms of policy content."

Schulz sounds different when he talks like Gabriel

Journalists remark that there are still no clear statements on how Schulz can make society more just again. Many of his statements still seem vague. For example, the SPD wants to fight tax evasion and to require those with large assets to support social cohesion. He says old-age poverty must be combated and minimum wage regulations must be adhered to. To many SPD members, these statements sound suspiciously familiar, like the ones Sigmar Gabriel has made. But when Martin Schulz, former mayor of the small western German city of Würselen, talks about these issues, then the old party platform seems to have a completely different effect.

Martin Rivoir feels the same way. The SPD member of Baden-Wuerttemberg's state parliament believes that Schulz has the potential to unite his strife-ridden party. "He is also a politician whose Europe expertise brings us exactly what we need at the moment," Rivoir told DW.

Martin Schulz and Sigmar Gabriel
Schulz succeeded deputy-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel as chairman of the SPDImage: Reuters/F. Bensch

Martin Schulz – the mayor for Germany?

Schulz has seven months and three weeks to mobilize his party members, and more importantly, the undecided voters. To do this, he has resigned his seat in European Parliament to travel across the Germany to promote his credentials for the chancellorship. Schulz stressed that it will be a "long-distance run."

Step by step, election victory by election victory, the plan is for the marathon to take him to the chancellery. At the party conference in March, members will vote to officially appoint him as the main challenger to Angela Merkel. His main policy plan will be developed by the end of May. After that, the critical stage of the election campaign will follow. And if, contrary to expectations, the campaign becomes difficult, then Martin Schulz already has message for the SPD. "Do not forget, we are the masters of final spurts."