Election Campaign The Gloves Come Off

Germany's two largest parties have become embroiled in a first skirmish ahead of national elections in September, with the Social Democrats accusing their conservative rivals of smearing their candidate for chancellor.
Quelle: dpa
Martin Schulz has overseen a surge in SPD support.
(Source: dpa)

Germany’s Social Democrat Party (SPD) has dismissed accusations by rival conservatives that Martin Schulz, its candidate for chancellor in September’s election, broke rules in his former role as president of European Parliament.

Leading SPD members said Mr. Schulz, picked two weeks ago to challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel, is the victim of a smear campaign by her Christian Democratic (CDU) party. The two parties are currently in coalition government together.

The conservatives, alarmed at the surge in SPD polls ratings following the nomination of the popular Social Democrat firebrand, have compiled a supposedly incriminating nine-page dossier listing various alleged transgressions during his time in Brussels, including installing colleagues in well-paid positions.

Handelsblatt has obtained a copy of the dossier. Much of the criticism isn’t new and focuses on accusations that Mr. Schulz abused his position as president of the parliament.

In the 2014 European elections, he is alleged to have transformed his official Twitter account as president into a private election campaign account to keep his 80,000 followers.

The SPD should stop sniveling in response to justified criticism. Andreas Scheuer, CSU General Secretary

The dossier also deals with Markus Engels, Mr. Schulz’s former press officer and now his campaign manager. Mr. Engels, who was on the parliament’s payroll, broke rules by performing party political duties for Mr. Schulz, says the dossier.

According to a report by news magazine Der Spiegel, he received additional income in the form of allowances such as a tax-free monthly payment of €840, or $890, for working abroad because he was often in Berlin even though his official home base was Brussels. In 2012, for example, he received an additional sum of more than €16,000 for working outside Brussels for 273 days.

“I hope we’re not seeing the harbingers of a real smear campaign,” said SPD general secretary Katarina Barley. She pointed out that Mr. Engels had resigned from a life-long civil service job in the European Commission to take up a temporary post at SPD party headquarters for the election.

Andreas Scheuer, general secretary of the Christian Social Union party, the Bavarian sister party of the CDU, rejected the accusation of a smear campaign. “The SPD should stop sniveling in response to justified criticism,” he said.

The CDU on Monday said its campaign against Mr. Schulz and the SPD would be based on policies and concrete facts.

“We know he stands for Europe as a union of debt that would be very expensive for the German taxpayer,” deputy CDU chairwoman Julia Klöckner told Handelsblatt. “He stands for Turkey’s E.U. accession which we reject.”

She added: “Everything depends on credibility — and therefore on the difference between Chancellor Merkel and candidate Schulz.”

The SPD has surged almost 10 points in recent days since party leader Sigmar Gabriel, now the foreign minister, stepped aside saying Mr. Schulz had a better chance of beating Ms. Merkel.

Pressure on the conservatives is growing with an opinion poll by the INSA institute published last week showing the SPD ahead of the combined CDU and CSU for the first time in years.

The poll showed the SPD at 31 percent, one point ahead of the conservatives.

The SPD is currently the junior coalition partner to Ms. Merkel’s conservatives and Mr. Schulz, who is staunchly pro-European and anti-austerity, is benefiting from being untainted by any government role.

Ms. Merkel has been weakened by her open-door refugee policy under which more than one million migrants have been let into Germany since the start of 2015 alone.

She is facing up to the pressure though, announcing tough new measures last week to speed up the repatriation of migrants whose asylum requests have been rejected.

Meanwhile Mr. Schulz on Monday asked the SPD for more time to come up with an election program. The party had planned to agree on the manifesto at a congress on May 29 — now it could be a month later.


Heike Anger is an editor for economics and politics at Handelsblatt and Handelsblatt Online. Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt's Berlin office. Till Hoppe reports on politics for Handelsblatt, with a focus on defense, domestic policy and cyber issues. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected]