To his fans he's a pop star. A guiding light, headed for the chancellery – full steam ahead, all aboard the "Schulz train." But, DW's Sabine Kinkartz asks, how long can the euphoria surrounding the new SPD leader last?
It's not unusual for there to be a big jamboree at party conferences when a new leader is chosen. Triumphal music, bright lights, cheers, beaming faces, endless applause. Been there, done that.
But the extraordinary SPD party conference in Berlin - at which Martin Schulz was elected as the new party leader and named as its chancellor candidate - was different. The euphoria of the 2,500 delegates and guests was real, the unbridled enthusiasm almost palpable. Schulz is the first SPD party leader to be elected by the whole party, with not a single dissenting vote. One hundred percent.
On the one hand, it's great that politics can still electrify people like this. But is this really about politics? About content? Substance? Martin Schulz hasn't delivered much of that yet, and apparently it will be at least another three months before he presents a manifesto – they're saying June. Until then, there's just the proposal to introduce something called "unemployment benefit Q," which would provide a financial incentive for qualification, i.e. further training. Although there's reason to wonder how useful that actually is at a time when there are more and more vacancies opening up. But that's another subject, and not what this is about.
Pride and passion
Right now it's not about facts, manifestos, efforts at the political level. It's about symbols, projections and expectations. Martin Schulz appeals to people's emotions; he does it very skillfully and very well. He has stepped into an emotional vacuum, and seems able, with apparent ease, to revive the passion and pride the SPD has lost sight of in recent years.
It was no coincidence that the first thing he did was to chip away at Agenda 2010, the social and labor market reform the SPD pushed through more than ten years ago, but which many party members still feel queasy about today. The Hartz IV welfare program, modified unemployment benefits and all that went with it are still regarded by many in the SPD as a blot on their copybook – a betrayal of core social-democratic values.
If Martin Schulz intends to change something – anything – about this, that alone is balm to the SPD soul. It's a flame of hope – hope that the political leadership will return the party to its great theme of "justice," and thus also to its former glory. The glory the SPD had under Willy Brandt; there has been much reference to this in the past few days. The events of recent weeks have fueled this feeling. Haven't thousands found their way back to the SPD, or else have newly joined? Hasn't the party's popularity in the polls considerably increased? Isn't Martin Schulz suddenly a real alternative to Angela Merkel?
The new guy
It is an alternative also fueled, paradoxically, by Martin Schulz's image as "the new guy." For the SPD faithful, the former European Parliament president really has fallen like manna from heaven. In any political party, European politicians are like beings from another planet. From time to time they pop up in Germany, but somehow they and their brand of politics are only ever visiting. Brussels is a long way off.
So on the one hand Martin Schulz is a new face. On the other, though, he isn't making a novice's mistakes. He's a political professional: He knows how he must behave, what he can and must say. He's got his gestures and facial expressions under control; he knows which buttons to press, which levers to apply. He's been extremely successful at appearances in small towns and villages. He talks to the people, gives them the sense they're really being heard. He manages to seem homey – not like someone who's just flown in from Berlin for a few hours yet appears out of place the minute he steps outside the government district.
DW's Sabine Kinkartz
Will the wave of support continue through September?
The big question now is: How long can Martin Schulz continue to feed this enthusiasm and harness the euphoria? These also provide him with a degree of immunity to accusations and hostilities. The president of the European Parliament favored his colleagues? Not that important. Banal, given all that he's achieving at the moment.
Really? Not interesting yet, one should say. This, though, is where things get serious for Martin Schulz. He's now the leader of the party, and the SPD's chancellor candidate. He is number one – the one who decides the direction the party's going in, but also the one who has to show it the way. The one who shoulders responsibility – and the one who's ultimately held responsible for everything.
As Schulz is not a member of the federal parliament, he doesn't have to make allowances for sensitivities within the SPD's grand coalition with the CDU/CSU. He can go on the attack, make a name for himself. He has a political freedom that others do not. That gives him a huge advantage. All he has to do now is systematically use it. The path he's heading down seems to be the right one. The longing for a just world, for warmth and dependability, is greater than it's been for a very long time. If Martin Schulz doesn't make too many mistakes over the next six months, he really does stand a good chance of leading the field on September 24.
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