The announcement that Martin Schulz, ex-president of the European Parliament, wants to become German chancellor has resulted in what the magazine Der Spiegel termed a ‘tectonic shift’ in Germany’s political landscape. Approval rates for his party, the Social Democrats, have surged since his informal nomination on 24 January, and for the first time in over a decade Angela Merkel’s chancellorship seems under serious pressure.
In many ways, this could be good news. Schulz, Der Spiegel writes, ‘is invigorating democracy, regenerating long-absent excitement for his party, the Social Democrats (SPD), and fuelling hopes of a change in government’. He is, as sociologist Armin Nassehi has said, offering to voters what they have been longing for: an alternative to Merkel, a feeling that there is a true choice. After watching Schulz’s first speech as the new candidate, one commentator said he could ‘feel the energy and enthusiasm’.
But are these people really feeling Schulz’s enthusiasm, or just the pang of their own hopes? There is something strange about Schulz appearing as Germany’s new hope. It’s not as if the problems of this candidate haven’t been discussed. Schulz spent the past 22 years building a career in the EU, and not in Germany. His decision to run for chancellor was made only after he had failed in his quest to remain president of the European Parliament. Also, his wheeling and dealing as part of the Brussels establishment, his complicity with Jean-Claude Juncker, president of European Commission, and his undiplomatic conduct towards elected representatives of other countries, have all been discussed at length in the German press. Der Spiegel depicted him on one of its cover pages as ‘St Martin’, with a halo and a caption reading: ‘Candidate Schulz’s hunger for power.’ In a more recent piece, the magazine has accused him of fraud.
It’s far from clear whether Schulz can keep up the momentum. But that’s not the point. The more interesting question is why Schulz, with all his obvious faults, has struck a chord at all. True, the surveys and the talk of Schulzomania should be taken with a pinch of salt. As members of Germany’s big research institutes have pointed out, surveys suggesting he is surging in popularity are based on voters’ momentary impressions. They were, as Thomas Petersen from the Allensbach Institute writes, influenced by the way the media has hyped the candidate. However, a few months ago, when Merkel announced her decision to run for a fourth term, the only challenge seemed to come from the right-wing, anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which had great successes at local elections last year. ‘Angela Merkel still without alternative’, was the view presented in the press back then.
It is precisely this talk of ‘no alternative to Merkel’ that lies at the heart of Schulz’s success. The fact that there was, for a long time, no contender to Merkel’s chancellorship did not mean that people in Germany were generally happy with that situation. In fact, rebellion against Merkel’s version of the politics of TINA (There Is No Alternative) began a long time ago. It was palpable during the financial crisis of 2010, and even during the euro crisis of 2012, when Merkel appeared to be at the height of her power.