Martin Schulz and Sigmar Gabriel, the two most prominent Social Democrat politicians, marched onto the stage to blaring rock music and cheers and applause from the 800-strong crowd on Wednesday evening. The arena in Wolfenbüttel, a small town in central Germany, is more used to comedians raising the roof than the two most prominent Social Democratic politicians.
This was something different: a curtain raiser for the confirmation of Mr. Schulz as party leader and candidate for chancellor in September’s general election, to be finalized in Berlin this weekend.
Here in Wolfenbüttel, deep in Mr. Gabriel’s home region, the former leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party, or SPD, was symbolically handing over the baton to his successor and friend. All eyes were on Mr. Schulz: the crowd was here to celebrate “our Martin.” He is hailed as a savior here – since being named as chancellor candidate, the party has attracted 12,000 new members, and leaped in the polls from 20 percent to over 30, giving Mr. Schulz a genuine chance of succeeding Angela Merkel as German chancellor. The SPD rank-and-file, demoralized for years, can hardly believe it.
In his speech Mr. Schulz hinted at what the SPD’s platform and campaigning style will look like. This election, he said, would be about defending democracy against its enemies, and winning back decent people who were disillusioned and mistrustful of political elites. “How to make the lives of our families and our children a little better – that should be the goal of all our actions,” he told the crowd. It wasn’t just a question of Germany, he said. All human beings deserved dignity: “As a prosperous country, we shouldn’t be lecturing others. We should use our strength to help give strength to others.” This drew a particularly loud burst of applause.