Once could be a fluke. Twice marks the start of a trend.
Germany’s center-left Social Democratic Party, once looking like it could be heading for one of its worst-ever performances in federal elections set for September, suddenly finds itself with a real shot at becoming the country’s largest political party.
Two opinion polls have now put the Social Democrats ahead of the center-right Christian Democrats led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is looking to win a fourth term in office. The latest poll by Emnid for the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag put the SPD ahead for the first time in a decade – 33 percent to 32 percent. Just two months ago the SPD was languishing as low as 20 percent.
It all seems to be down to one man, Martin Schulz, the outspoken former leader of the European Parliament who returned to Germany and was appointed the party’s chancellor candidate at the start of this year. “Martin rocks” seems to be the new slogan among SPD members.
Mr. Schulz is leading a broader resurgence of the political left in Germany – a stark contrast to most countries in the western world.
“The SPD will be standing to become the strongest party in Germany,” Mr. Schulz made clear at a campaign-style speech at a labor-union conference in Bielefeld on Monday. “We want to be number one.”
Mr. Schulz, who will be formally named the SPD party leader and chancellor candidate at a convention in March, has not only pulled his party out of the rough but is matching Ms. Merkel in personal popularity, too, according to recent polls. Voters pick parties rather than individuals in Germany’s parliamentary system.
In fact, Mr. Schulz is leading a broader resurgence of the political left in Germany – a stark contrast to most countries in the western world where the conservatives and the far-right have been steadily gaining ground. The Left Party, an alliance of former East German communist party members and a group of left-wingers who split from the SPD in the last decade, is polling at 8 percent according to the Emnid poll on Sunday. The left-leaning Greens are polling at 7 percent.
Why does that matter? Because it would give a coalition of the three parties a narrow majority in the German parliament. If those polls hold until September – unlikely in today’s fast-moving political world – it would allow them to govern the country without the help of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
Ms. Merkel’s CDU and her preferred coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democrats, together come up with just 36 percent in the poll. The right-wing Alternative for Germany polls at 9 percent – significant but not nearly as high as in many other western countries.
Like many politicians in the past topsy-turvy election year, where political convention has been turned on its head, Mr. Schulz seems to be succeeding so far by tacking to the left rather than to the center. It’s something that many on the right believe could make him vulnerable as the campaign ramps up, yet it’s also firing up his own party’s base in the process. The mood of party strategists in the SPD’s Willy Brandt headquarters in Berlin couldn’t be better.
Over the weekend, Mr. Schulz suggested changes to the vaunted Agenda 2010, a series of labor-market reforms launched by his own party’s centrist former chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the last decade.
“Martin Schulz is swerving hard to the left. By challenging Agenda 2010 he’s going to break one of the biggest reform successes of Social Democratic politics in the last decade.”
Many economists credit the reforms, which introduced more flexibility in the market, with reviving growth in Germany but critics argue it has cut benefits to the point where many long-term unemployed are struggling to make ends meet. The resulting irony is that the reforms have been more popular among Ms. Merkel’s center-right allies than it has been on the left.
“Making mistakes does not mean a loss of honor,” Mr. Schulz told the Bild newspaper on Sunday. “What’s important is that mistakes are corrected when they are recognized.”
Concretely, the SPD leader is suggesting extending the highest level of unemployment benefits for longer. The fact that a worker who is fired at the age of 50 or older can be pushed into the lowest class of unemployment benefits within 15 months of failing to find a new job is wrong, he said.
Mr. Schulz is also unapologetic about other left-leaning priorities. On Monday, he said he would “welcome an election fight over taxes,” which Ms. Merkel’s party is promising to lower if it wins in September. Mr. Schulz’s SPD will be pushing instead for using Germany’s budget surplus to boost spending in education, qualifications, health and infrastructure, he said.
As a long-time leader in Brussels, Mr. Schulz is also firmly pro-European, so much so that Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble earlier this month derided his supporters as Trumpian for using the slogan “Make Europe Great Again.”
To be sure, Mr. Schulz is not suggesting a more radical agenda that some on the left might desire, such as tearing up the Agenda 2010 labor-market reforms altogether. Nevertheless, politicians on the right already sense an opportunity to paint the new SPD leader as a left-wing ideologue.
“Martin Schulz is swerving hard to the left. By challenging Agenda 2010 he’s going to break one of the biggest reform successes of Social Democratic politics in the last decade,” said Christian Lindner, head of the Free Democrats that hope to regain seats in parliament this September.
Whether Mr. Schulz’s left turn will hold truck with centrist German voters is also still unclear, even if he’s clearly given the SPD in the last month. Manfred Güllner, director of the polling firm Forsa, noted that the labor-market reforms of Mr. Schröder remain popular among the country’s conservative population.
“Schulz won’t win back the 10 million voters that the SPD lost between 1998 and 2009 by walking away from Agenda 2010,” Mr. Güllner told Handelsblatt. “The majority of Germans view the reforms as right.”
Ms. Merkel’s CDU is also showing itself unconcerned by the SPD’s rise, though the party has already ramped up the campaign rhetoric. Mr. Schäuble, still one of the country’s most popular politicians and himself always outspoken, says he’s confident the fad will wear off.
“The show won’t last long. There has to be a little more substance,” Mr. Schäuble said on German public television station ARD on Sunday.
So far, nothing the right has thrown is sticking to Mr. Schulz. But a lot can change in more than six months left of campaigning.
Christopher Cermak is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. Heike Anger is a political correspondent for Handelsblatt in Berlin. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com