By naming former EU Parliament President Martin Schulz to run against Angela Merkel for chancellorship, the Social Democrats are back in the game, writes Dagmar Engel. They have become visible for the German voters.
It has been worth the wait. The German Social Democrats (SPD) have started the election year with a bang. It is old news that Chancellor Angela Merkel will be standing for re-election - that has already been publically dealt with and digested by the media. But the changes at the head of the SPD are providing ample new material to speculate on.
Almost as popular as Merkel
Martin Schulz, the new chancellor candidate, is someone who is able to match Merkel in terms of popularity, and comes closer to her as a rival for the chancellorship than any other Social Democrat in the last decade. He is a proven supporter of Europe and a great communicator who is able to attack fiercely as well as defend himself with confidence. There will shortly be a Social Democrat as president: Frank-Walter Steinmeier, long-time foreign minister, but no great orator. Yet he is someone the German people trust - he has been out front in popularity in the polls for years. In Germany, foreign ministers are traditionally frontrunners in popularity. Perhaps Vice-Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel will win over some hearts by taking on this role.
For the voters, the Social Democrats have suddenly become visible again. And not just as a junior partner in the coalition with Merkel's Conservatives in Berlin, a partner who asserts political goals, but loses all credit for success to the chancellor and her party. With a new chancellor candidate who is from outside government affairs and the disciplines of cabinet, the Social Democrats will be able to forcefully articulate party policies. They can concentrate on the core areas of their competence - a commitment to social justice. It is all about showing the Germans that it truly makes a difference who they vote for, that the main parties are not all the same.
The SPD's commitment to Europe
But one thing is unchanged: a firm commitment to Europe. Amongst the parties represented in the federal parliament in Berlin, there is no room for the nationalism that is growing in parts of Europe and the world - not even in an election year.
Playing along is not enough to win. But the SPD has now proved that just being part of a coalition is not enough. After years of weakness, the Social Democrats now have a chance to show themselves as a real alternative for Germany.
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