german elections The Fight of Her Life

Chancellor Angela Merkel will have to wage a tougher election campaign than usual to beat Social Democrat challenger Martin Schulz. Conservative strategists are warning that her famously non-committal style of politics won’t work this time.
The conservatives warn Martin Schulz would abandon Ms. Merkel’s austerity policy and reverse progress on reducing unemployment.

Just a few weeks ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives had been focusing on the likely size of their victory after she humiliated the Social Democrats (SPD) with a 16-point lead in the 2013 election.

But since SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel made way for Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament, to run against Ms. Merkel, the SPD has rocketed in opinion polls and is now neck-and-neck with the conservatives at around 30 percent.

This rare surge in popularity for the SPD has made the conservatives realize that this time, they’ve got a fight on their hands. In previous elections, the conservative strategy worked like this: avoid committing yourself to concrete policies, quickly take over the pledges of your political opponents and demoralize them in the process.

Instead of making clear statements, Ms. Merkel’s party managers used to focus on feel-good campaigning that portrayed her as a safe pair of hands at the helm of a country that was delivering steady economic growth.


The SPD’s status as junior coalition partner to Ms. Merkel has been a poisoned chalice. It’s done much of the work, and she’s got all the credit. The conservatives and SPD have shared power twice under Ms. Merkel, from 2005 until 2009 and from 2013 until now.

Ms. Merkel has basked in a de facto presidential role, steadfastly keeping herself above the fray of everyday politics and avoiding getting her hands dirty. But the refugee crisis has weakened her, and Mr. Schulz’s meteoric ascent in the polls heralds what could be the toughest battle of her career.

The firebrand Mr. Schulz has shattered the calm at the Berlin headquarters of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.

The refugee crisis has weakened Ms. Merkel, and Mr. Schulz’s meteoric ascent in the polls heralds what could be the toughest battle of her career.

The party is still grappling for a strategy to fight him. In recent weeks they’ve confronted him with his past statements on European issues, warning that he will abandon Ms. Merkel’s austerity policy and devote German taxpayers’ money to bankrolling heavily indebted European states.

They are also accusing him of breaking rules in his former role as president of the European Parliament by installing colleagues in well-paid positions.

But so far they’ve failed to take the wind out of his sails, and he looks set to whip up further support by shifting the party to the left. He announced plans this week to boost pensions, limit temporary work contracts and increase unemployment benefits, in what would be a reversal of key parts of the famous “Agenda 2010” reform agenda launched by the SPD-led government under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in 2003 and 2004.

CDU Secretary General Peter Tauber said, “We’ve halved unemployment since 2005.” The conservatives wanted to keep increasing employment and needed “flexibility and competitiveness” to make that happen, he told Handelsblatt. “What candidate Schulz is demanding is endangering this success.”

Campaigning is starting early this year. The second floor of the CDU’s central office, the Konrad Adenauer Haus named after West Germany’s first post-war chancellor, is already being converted into the CDU’s election headquarters.

By the end of February, CDU policy experts will submit proposals for a party program that will then be assessed and prioritized with the help of polling research. Meanwhile, the party managers of the CDU and its smaller Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), are working on core campaign messages to help Ms. Merkel win her fourth victory.

She and CSU leader Horst Seehofer will then present their joint campaign manifesto after the summit of G20 leading economies, which takes place in Hamburg on July 7 and 8.

CDU managers say the party will focus on highlighting policy differences between the two camps in a campaign that will address taxes, pensions, the economy, digitalization and security.

There are fears that the sudden surge in SPD fortunes could paralyze CDU campaigners. That’s why conservatives are already tackling Mr. Schulz’s plans.

“Social justice means ensuring that people have work,” said CDU lawmaker Patrick Schnieder. He said the CDU needed to outline its positions more sharply from now on.

Carsten Linnemann, head of a conservative group representing small and medium-sized businesses, said the party needs to come up with detailed plans to attract voters. He proposed boosting home ownership to help people save for their retirement by raising the threshold for real estate transfer tax to a purchase price of over €500,000, or $527,000. “It’s important to be as concrete as possible,” he said.

Three regional elections in the coming months will show whether Mr. Schulz can turn his promise into votes. The CDU wants to hold onto power in Saarland on March 26 and to seize power in May in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein and in Germany’s most populous state with 17 million inhabitants, North Rhine-Westphalia.

But Mr. Schulz has given the SPD a big boost in North Rhine-Westphalia, and an SPD victory in such a huge state just four months before the general election could give the SPD important impetus, CDU officials fear.


Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt's Berlin office. To contact the author: [email protected].