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.
“It is still much too early to make a judgment on Martin Schulz’s economic competence.”
Solidarity, justice, participation – these are the new leader’s major themes. But they’re not meeting with universal approval.
In Wolfenbüttel, Heinz-Jörg Fuhrmann gave a thoughtful speech. Mr. Fuhrmann is the CEO of Salzgitter AG, one of Europe’s largest steel producers, a major local employer with 25,000 employees. Praising Mr. Gabriel, Mr. Fuhrmann said he done a great deal to bring the SPD’s focus back toward industrial policy. But in a swipe at Mr. Schulz’s recent promises to increase benefits, Mr. Fuhrmann added that German industry was not so healthy that the SPD could “turn primarily to distribution.” Mr. Schulz should not “try and see how much industry could bear.”
Since the arrival of the the 61-year-old Mr. Schulz, worries have grown in German business circles that he could represent a one-sided concentration on redistribution, ignoring business concerns. These anxieties were encouraged by Mr. Schulz’s proposals to generously extend long-term unemployment insurance, in a reversal of reforms enacted over a decade ago.
Michael Frenzel, a former chief executive of tourism giant TUI, and president of the SPD’s Business Forum, said it was “still much too early to make a judgment on Martin Schulz’s economic competence.” Mr. Schulz would “soon present a detailed picture of his economic and fiscal policies,” he added.
Mr. Schulz’s team are trying to dispel precisely these kind of doubts about their candidate’s competence. Suggestions in the media that Mr. Schulz was “a nightmare for business” are simply not true, they say: he knows full well that the SPD can only succeed with a good relationship with business. “Owners of family firms will probably never vote for us, but they shouldn’t be afraid of us either,” said one of his advisers.
The Schulz team acknowledges that economic policy has so far not been his main concern. But they say that before the release of the party program this summer, the candidate will “gradually set the thematic tone.” One place it may be made explicit is the SPD parliamentary party’s business reception, planned for May 31. Mr. Schulz is to give the keynote speech, entitled “Future Trends 2030 – Politics for the Economy of Tomorrow.”
But opinion pollsters are warning Mr. Schulz against focusing strongly on themes of social justice. “Since 1949, the SPD has never won an election by concentrating purely on redistribution,” Manfred Güllner told Handelsblatt. Mr. Güllner heads the Forsa Institute, one of Germany’s leading opinion and market research firms. “In 2013, 80 percent of voters agreed with a minimum wage. And 75 percent wanted retirement reduced to 63 years of age,” he said, mentioning two key SPD policies: “But most of them did not vote for the SPD.” Four years ago, the party suffered one of its worst post-war electoral results, getting just 25 percent of the vote, 16 percentage points behind Ms. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats. Since then, the two parties have governed together in a so-called “grand coalition.”
Voices of caution are not what SPD members want to hear. Their mood is strong and confidence is high. “This is not about hype, it is a fundamental, lasting transformation,” said Kajo Wasserhövel, SPD election manager in 2005 and 2009, adding that the party was bouncing back to its normal, higher levels of support. Mr. Schulz wasn’t just attracting the attention of voters, he was also turning them into active supporters, Mr. Wasserhövel told Handelsblatt: he embodied social justice, but from a position of pragmatism, not ideology. This could inspire non-voters and those on the fence.
“There is no sign of SPD support collapsing,” said Jana Faus, who runs opinion research firm Pollytix and is an adviser to the party. “Our data shows consolidation and even extension of the trend.” The SPD had to push forward consistently with its key ideas: social justice, open-mindedness, tolerance, pro-Europe, she added.
“This is not about hype, it is a fundamental, lasting transformation.”
Mr. Wasserhövel, the party strategist, said he did not think the six-month wait until the election was a problem. “A campaign is a dynamic thing, you have to stay alert and ready to react,” he said. Mr. Schulz has survived the first skirmishes well, he added. The party leadership has its first “campaign camp” planned for next month, with particular emphasis on young and new members.
SPD election managers are pinning their hopes on an electorate fed up with the long-serving Ms. Merkel, as well as divisions among the Christian Democrats. After the recent surge in the opinion polls, upcoming regional elections will present a key test: they begin in a couple of weeks in the Saarland, followed soon after by polls in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein and in North Rhine-Westphalia, the country’s most populous state.
Prospects look good for the SPD in the Saarland, where it might pull in 40 percent of the vote: this would be an impressive result in a state where the party, once strong, has declined in the last two decades.
Heike Anger is an editor covering economics and politics. Martin Greive is a correspondent for Handelsblatt based in Berlin. Klaus Stratmann covers the energy market from Berlin. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com