Merkel challenger Schulz Playing with Populist Fire

While Germany is flourishing economically, fears of social decline still abound. Social Democrat chancellor candidate Martin Schulz has seized on these fears through populist rhetoric, but that's a dangerous game.
SPD chancellor candidate Martin Schulz is not above appealing to the masses. Photo: Friso Gentsch/dpa

In recent speeches and interviews, chancellor candidate of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) Martin Schulz has made it abundantly clear that he seeks to lead his party to the left. Politically, Mr. Schulz's driving force is his keen instinct for the fears of broad sections of the German population regarding social and economic decline. He is countering these with a vision of a state that protects its citizens against the chill winds of globalization. While he has already been rewarded in opinion polls, it is questionable whether he is doing his party a favor in the long run.

Mr. Schulz is latching onto a pervasive mood in Western societies. With even the International Monetary Fund and the Confederation of German Industry cautioning against the dangers of globalization and committing themselves to "inclusive growth," the level of political uncertainty is high. While the vague anxiety of imminent decline is affecting individuals and whole states alike, it is difficult to come up with facts to explain these fears.

This is particularly true for Germany, where broad sections of the population are among the winners of globalization. The country is bursting with economic vitality and exporting like never before. The country's labor market is more relaxed than it has been for decades, and real wages have recently seen healthy growth. Indeed, the greatest current concern of many entrepreneurs is that the pool of skilled workers might dry up.  So why should anyone be afraid of unemployment and decline?

And while the SPD is celebrating successes, one of its potential coalition partners, the Greens, is suffering in the polls.

While Mr. Schulz has emphasized that Germany is "an affluent, successful country" in an excellent position compared with many European neighbors, he has also insisted on the importance of change – if for no other reason than because he has to. Specifically, these changes include revoking labor and economic reforms known as the "Agenda 2010," which were introduced by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder against fierce opposition from within his own party. Today, Mr. Schröder's push to cut unemployment benefits and medical costs, as well as restructure welfare, is widely viewed as the basis of Germany's current economic strength.

In all fairness, it should be said that Mr. Schulz’s election campaign demands will not exactly put Germany back in the Stone Age. The country will not go to rack and ruin because of changes in how long unemployment benefit can be claimed or restrictions in the numbers of fixed-term employment contracts.

The issue is more about the way Mr. Schulz conducts his election campaign. He accuses right-wing populists of using fear as their currency of choice, but is he not guilty of using similar rhetoric?  The image of a grim, modern working environment where fear of decline dominates has little to do with reality in Germany today. But that doesn’t stop Mr. Schulz from stoking such fears – and touting his own remedies for them.

Indeed, Mr. Schulz is organizing the SPD's escape from the prison of the current grand ruling coalition, and he is doing so in a way which former candidate Sigmar Gabriel, one of the architects of the alliance between the center-right Christian Democratic Union, the Christian Social Union, its Bavarian sister party, and the SPD, would never have been able to do. That is, combatively.

And the victims are starting to show.

Right now, Mr. Schulz is riding roughshod over those Social Democrats responsible for the “Agenda 2010”. There is little to be heard from them, and that will hardly change. After all, who would seriously want to get in the way of bringing the party new members and voters?

For years, the SPD has struggled to come to terms with the reforms of Mr. Schröder. Now, left-leaning members are regaining peace of mind with Mr. Schulz, albeit at the risk of drifting toward insignificance in the long-term. Of course, these dangers will be dismissed out of hand by those currently riding a wave of success.

And while the SPD is celebrating successes, one of its potential coalition partners, the Greens, is suffering in the polls.  The Greens themselves are responsible in part for the dramatic fall in voter approval due to a lack charismatic leadership, and the disparity in the messages between potential Green party candidates Anton Hofreiter and Cem Özdemir is remarkable. But some of the slouching approval ratings must be attributed to Mr. Schulz, as he is in the process of becoming the center of gravity for all politics left of center. Germany's focus on the duel between the CDU and SPD certainly comes at the expense of the Greens.

Finally, Angela Merkel could also fall victim to Mr. Schulz's rhetoric. She lacks the modicum of superficial populism that defines Mr. Schulz, and this could cost her in the coming elections. While some might wish Ms. Merkel to embody more a tribune of the people, Mr. Schulz will likely play that role all on his own. But the question remains: to what end?


To contact the author: [email protected]