Germany's election The Man to Take on Merkel

A former high-school dropout, Martin Schulz might become one of the most powerful men in Europe if he can beat Chancellor Angela Merkel in fall's federal elections.

After months of speculation about Martin Schulz’s future, he broke his silence last November: The Social Democrat announced he would give up his Brussels post as European Parliament president and return to the German political arena in January.

After vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel surprised many on Tuesday by withdrawing as the Social Democratic challenger to Angela Merkel, Mr. Schulz is expected to become the Social Democrats’ top candidate in the coming election.

The SPD will formally announce its candidate this Sunday in Berlin.

Their likely choice, Mr. Schulz, was born near Aachen in 1955. He was the youngest son of political activists from opposing sides of the spectrum. His father, the eleventh child of a large working-class mining family, was a member of the SPD, while his mother founded the local branch of the center-right Christian Democratic Union.

Together with his four older siblings, Mr. Schulz was educated nearby, though he didn't graduate from high school. But the family was engaged, politics dominated dinnertime talk and later, all five children joined the SPD.

As a boy, Mr. Schulz was a keen soccer player but knee injuries forced him to abandon his dream of a sporting career. Deeply disappointed, he became depressed and turned to drink, becoming an alcoholic by the age of 24. He was considering suicide when his sister and a friend intervened. He then stopped drinking, helped by his brother, a doctor, and hasn’t touched a drop since.

It was a turning point. Mr. Schulz joined his siblings in the Young Socialists, the SPD's youth group, and impressed many with his uncompromising manner.

Unlike Chancellor Angela Merkel or President Joachim Gauck, Mr. Schulz says it like it is.

In 1982, he opened his own bookstore and held political meetings in the back room. Soon he began making waves in Aachen's local politics, later becoming the town's mayor at the age of 31, the youngest ever in his state.

That same no-nonsense approach is what makes Mr. Schulz admired in Germany. Unlike Chancellor Angela Merkel or outgoing President Joachim Gauck, Mr. Schulz says it like it is.

But it was outside of Germany that Mr. Schulz spent most of his political career. He was elected a member of the European Parliament in 1994 and became a leader of the center-left "Socialists and Democrats" faction of the E.U. legislature a decade later. He became president of the European Parliament in 2012.

His straight talk hasn't always won him friends; in 2003 he annoyed then-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi with his criticism, prompting the Italian leader to compare him to a concentration camp guard.

Mr. Schulz is a gifted public speaker, analytical and also able to move people's emotions. When he gives a speech at party meetings, they are greeted with thundering ovations.

Nils Diederich, a professor at Berlin’s Free University who focuses on Germany’s party political system, told Handelsblatt Global that Mr. Schulz is the only alternative after Mr. Gabriel's withdrawal as the Social Democratic challenger: “He has a clean slate when it comes to domestic policy and is a clear Merkel challenger, as he represents the only convincing alternative to the CDU/CSU.”

The two Social Democrat politicians have been respectful of each other's ambitions over the years. Back in 2003, shortly after his electoral defeat as state premier of Lower Saxony, the party's leaders urged Mr. Gabriel to move to Brussels. He resisted, arguing that he didn’t want to challenge Mr. Schulz to be the leading SPD candidate in the 2004 European Parliament elections. Such consideration is rare in the rough and tumble of political life.

So no one was surprised when last year, as the question came up in the SPD as to who would stand for election against Ms. Merkel, Mr. Schulz carefully said his place was “in Brussels.” Deeply loyal, whenever asked, he said he was happy to be the Social Democrats' representative in Europe.

But he never ruled out running as a candidate in the elections. And as all eyes look to Sunday, many recall that even last summer, Mr. Schulz was spending more time in Berlin, appearing in public and talking with political journalists.


Daniel Tost is a Handelsblatt Global editor. Tina Bellon contributed to this article. To contact the author: [email protected]