The chancellor and her challenger met head on for the first time as political rivals on Wednesday night, when their two parties held their last coalition committee meeting before this September’s election.
But Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz held their fire as her Christian Democrats and his Social Democrats negotiated the governing coalition’s remaining legislative program. They reached a consensus on some agreeably uncontroversial issues like banning child marriages and harsher punishments for burglars. When it came to hot potatoes like capping executive pay, both sides kept all their options open. After all, there has to be some ammunition left for the election campaign.
Nevertheless, once again, the Social Democrats, as they have during the last three and one-half years of coalition, were pushing forward with their issues, such as the return from part-time to full-time employment or the guaranteed minimum pension, while the Christian Democrats were pulling the brakes: Slow down the pace and just don’t offer the opponent any openings for attack. By doing so, Ms. Merkel is holding to her defense strategy despite criticism from within her own ranks. Even if she appeared exhausted and burned-out at the start of the year, she hasn’t been harmed by it, as the election results in the small German state of Saarland show.
The coalition committee meeting already marks the second time that Martin Schulz, who played defense as a young soccer player and is now on the offense, has failed to score points against Ms. Merkel. That was made clear by the way his party colleague, Thomas Oppermann, the SPD floor leader, was forced to strongly double down against the “ideological” CDU, to try to make his chancellor candidate look good.
Sooner or later Mr. Martin Schulz will have to go face-to-face against Ms. Merkel.
As always, Ms. Merkel stuck to her course. Many want her to govern and not conduct an election campaign. That is a two-fold problem for the SPD. The Social Democrats need to manage a balance of being at the same time both the tough opposition and a responsible government. But squaring the circle isn’t something even Mr. Schulz can manage, despite the fact that his fans think he can walk on water. At first, the new SPD leader had no intention of taking part in the coalition committee. It took a whole four days of public discussions before Mr. Schulz accepted the fact that it would indeed be better for an SPD chairman to do some work than to carry on partying.
The voters would like to know what the man who wants to be chancellor stands for. How would he react if Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble were to stop the pending bailout funds for Greece? He should also take a clear stand and let everybody in on what he thinks about the left-wing Left Party and reveal what he has to say about the toll on private motor vehicles. General statements about possible tax cuts are not enough. There is no clear line on executive pay. Mr. Schulz wants to push Ms. Merkel out of office, with the help of the labor unions. But the head of the Mining, Chemical and Energy Industrial Union, Michael Vassiliadis, is the first top functionary who has already come out against a pay cap. Economics Minister, Brigitte Zypries, herself an SPD member, is also skeptical of extensive interventions. A call to order from Martin Schulz has yet to be heard.
The chancellor, on the other hand, is mercilessly pushing ahead with her program. She is preparing every little detail of the G20 summit in Hamburg, telephoning with the most powerful leaders in the world, such as the Chinese head of state and party leader, Xi Jinping. She accepted congratulations from U.S. President Donald Trump for winning the Saarland election. All of this as if Mr. Schulz didn’t even exist.
Her strength is the advantage of incumbency. That is something even the Social Democrats have recognized in the meantime. The election in Saarland opened the eyes of many in the SPD. It may be that for some sections of the population, Ms. Merkel has exceeded the zenith of her power. But she still has enough credit as a politician, especially since the refugee crisis is slowly disappearing from the public consciousness. This may quickly change, but at the moment that is the case.
Sooner or later Mr. Martin Schulz will have to go face-to-face against Ms. Merkel. He already got slapped down when on Twitter he tried to cast himself as a feminist only for CDU general secretary Peter Tauber to score points by pointing out that Ms. Merkel happens to be a woman.
Mr. Schulz has to prove that he would be the better chancellor. It isn’t enough to publicly make a claim to the office and urge the people to shout out Martin, Martin. He must now go up against Ms. Merkel. He already had the second chance to do that in the coalition committee. He didn’t seize the opportunity. He must wait again for another. The chancellor won’t voluntarily give him one.
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