German election Playing a New Opponent

When German chancellor Angela Merkel meets her fellow conservatives and political allies this weekend, they will need to work out how to beat the Social Democrats' new candidate for her job, Martin Schulz, in upcoming federal elections.
New strategy for a new competitor: The head of the Germany's Social Democratic Party and their candidate for chancellor in September's elections, Martin Schulz.

Angela Merkel, head of the Christian Democrats and chancellor candidate will meet her long-term ally, the Christian Social Union leader Horst Seehofer this weekend to decide on the common themes of their election campaign.

These include a limit on the annual number of refugees and dual citizenship.

The two party leaders will meet in Munich on Sunday for what is being billed as a "kick-off of the joint election program".

The two parties are gearing up for a fight against the threat of a center-left coalition of Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left party, and the nationalist Alternative for Germany party.

News that Martin Schulz will now become the Social Democrat's leader and candidate for chancellor, will force them to adapt their strategy.

For months, conservatives, and most Social Democrats, had assumed that Sigmar Gabriel, the party chairman, coalition vice chancellor and economy minister, would compete against Ms. Merkel.

But since he announced his surprise resignation on Tuesday, and handed the party's leadership as well as the candidacy to Mr. Schulz, who was until recently president of the European Parliament, conservatives must rethink.

Mr. Shulz’s announcement came at a point when Germany’s center-right parties had already begun preparing for election year. The Christian Democrats have already chosen the ad agency that will handle the campaign: Angela Merkel wants the Hamburg-based agency Jung von Matt to work on her fourth campaign, instead of Blumberry as before.

Martin Schulz is an ambitious politician who has ideas and wants to fight, we should not underestimate him. But he faces a major challenge: He will have to explain what social democracy stands for. Manfred Weber, MEP

Bavaria’s Christian Social Union is also getting ready. Andreas Scheuer, the party's secretary-general, said their campaign is well underway. He's been discussing the conservatives’ common ground with Peter Tauber, the Christian Democrat's secretary-general.

The conservatives' parliamentary floor leader, Volker Kauder, admitted that Mr. Schulz currently has very strong poll numbers, partly because he is a blank slate for many voters.

Party sources say the leaders of the conservative parties are aware that Mr. Schulz will indeed be a more difficult opponent than Mr. Gabriel, but believe his popularity is overrated.

He is seen as "the nice uncle from Brussels". How exactly he will position himself on domestic issues is unclear. This makes him vulnerable, and might lead to his ratings dropping. Conservatives are spoiling for a fight on topics on which he has taken a stand.

Specifically, European policy. "Schulz stands for more Europe, not for a better Europe,” Mr. Scheuer said, adding that Mr. Schulz will also coerce German savers to take on liability for Greek debt.

Conservative politicians from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia are taking an especially close look, since Mr. Schulz, a native, will seek a seat there to re-enter parliament.

The election campaigns in North-Rhine Westphalia, Schleswig-Holstein and Saarland all give him platforms from which to campaign. Without them the only way he could campaign would be to use his network in Europe and draw attention to himself at meetings of other Social Democrats.

Armin Laschet, a leading candidate in North-Rhine Westphalia insists he "could not care less who the SPD nominates" and is relying on the support for Mr. Seehofer for his campaign.

But conservatives know that Mr. Schulz, for all his lack of domestic experience, is an experienced campaigner. During the last European election, he ran as the Social Democrats' lead candidate and put pressure on the conservative faction. He forced Chancellor Angela Merkel to accept that the winning candidate should also become the president of the E.U. Commission, a move that helped Jean-Claude Juncker gain his seat in Brussels.

Mr. Schulz shouldn’t be underestimated, according to MEP Manfred Weber, who worked closely with Mr. Schulz in recent years. “Martin Schulz is an ambitious politician who has ideas and wants to fight, we should not underestimate him,” Mr. Weber said. “But he faces a major challenge: He will have to explain what social democracy stands for.”

The conservatives would prefer that the election campaign start as late as possible, at best not before the end of the parliamentary session in July. Before then, there are many uncertainties to consider - elections in France and the Netherlands, a possible early election in Italy - all of which could have a destabilizing effect on Europe. And then there is the new Trump administration in America. All of this leads to a longing for security.

"In difficult times, it's about political experience and not about rhetorical skills,” Günter Krings, head of the North Rhine-Westphalia group in the parliament, said. Little wonder then that the campaign slogan most popular in the party’s headquarters right now is this one: Stability And Direction.


Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt's Berlin office. Thomas Sigmund is Berlin bureau chief and chief of political reporting. To contact: [email protected] and [email protected].