Martin Schulz stood surrounded by a crowd of people, smiling and laughing. The new Social Democrat leader had just made his way to the podium at the Willy Brandt Haus, the SPD party headquarters in Berlin.
He waved at the audience, enjoying the lengthy applause and even indulged in a Gerhard Schröder-esque gesture, clasping his hands together and raising them over his head.
It has been a while since there’s been such a celebration at the SPD party headquarters. “The new spirit of optimism and the new hope in the party aren’t just palpable here in this room, but across the country,” Mr. Schulz told the gathered SPD members. “I am running for chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany!”
Shortly before his appearance, the former president of the European Parliament was unanimously nominated by his party's leadership to run as its candidate for chancellor. The party is to confirm his candidacy and officially elect him as party leader in March. This is considered a formality, however, and by then he will already have taken over the party leader responsibilities from Sigmar Gabriel.
Just one week ago, the idea that Mr. Schulz would be introducing himself to his party and to the media as the SPD’s party leader and chancellor candidate, would have seemed as likely as snow in summer. The days leading up to this moment were some of the most turbulent the SPD has seen in years.
Last Tuesday the news leaked out that Mr. Gabriel had unexpectedly decided not to run as his party’s candidate for chancellor. In an interview with the newsweekly Stern, Mr. Gabriel announced his surprise decision. Normally the piece would have been published on Thursday, but photos of the cover story with the headline “The Resignation” were already making the rounds on Tuesday. From then on, there was no holding it back. Even close co-workers were surprised.
Mr. Gabriel has done a lot for the SPD, but now he is saying, ‘There's someone who can do it better.' Malu Dreyer, Prime Minister, Rhineland-Palatinate
The deciding factor was apparently Mr. Gabriel's persistently poor polling results. Last Saturday, on January 21, Mr. Schulz and Mr. Gabriel met in the western town of Montabaur. It was during their meeting that Mr. Gabriel decided not to run, according to those close to the two men.
Just over a week later Mr. Schulz was standing in front of his applauding party colleagues. SPD General Secretary Katarina Barley had just announced that since the change in leadership was announced 700 people have joined the party. Mr. Schulz started on his mission to heat up his base. He criticized the “endless and tiring quarrels among the conservatives," the "humiliation" from within the conservatives, particularly from the Bavarian Christian Social Union, against their own chancellor. "Some still think it’s politics to kick each other in the back of the knee,” he said.
Then the SPD-chancellor candidate reiterated his SPD-friendly life story. He was born into a working class family and was an enthusiastic soccer player who preferred sports to studying. "As a young man, my soccer dreams were burst and during this time I lost my bearings," Mr. Schulz said, referring to the years when he suffered from alcoholism. He was given a second chance with an apprenticeship as a bookseller, he continued. He learned politics “from scratch” at the local level, he said, before being elected to the European Parliament in 1994. He does not see his lack of a college degree or the fact that he comes from the provinces to be a stumbling block. It is something he shares with the majority of Germans, he said.
Appearing on the popular current affairs talk show "Anne Will" on Sunday evening, the still largely unknown politician also tried to connect with ordinary people, making some lighthearted remarks paired with serious answers addressing the problems Germans face. The media verdict after the appearance was positive with Spiegel concluding: "The SPD could have a real chance this time."
Malu Dreyer, prime minister of Rhineland-Palatinate, praised Mr. Schulz as "the best possible candidate” for the SPD. “Mr. Gabriel has done a lot for the SPD, but now he is saying, ‘There's someone who can do it better.’” she told Handelsblatt in an interview. “Martin Schulz is pure SPD. He stands for social justice. He is absolutely credible; that is his DNA. That is why I am sure that he can convey the important topics for the SPD to the people authentically.”
That looks like being a recurring theme during the forthcoming election campaign. During his speech on Sunday at the party headquarters, the new SPD slogan was on show: “Time for more justice. Time for Martin Schulz.”
And the new candidate explored this theme of fairness, saying that it wasn't fair when a family can hardly pay their rent in large urban centers; when a corporate boss still receives multi-million-euro bonuses despite making disastrous decisions, but a saleswoman is fired for making a small error; when the small bakery pays its taxes regularly, but a global coffee conglomerate stashes its money in tax havens; when billions can be easily mobilized to save banks, but the plaster on the walls of schools is crumbling. “This is the duty of the SPD, to ensure justice,” Mr. Schulz exclaimed to cheers of approval.
At the same time he used firm language when talking about security policy: "Anyone who commits a crime in Germany or does not follow the rules will feel the full severity of German laws and the security authorities."
The speech was “outstanding,” according to his party colleagues. "It was a new beginning that took place today," said Matthias Machnig, who coordinated the SPD election campaign for Gerhard Schröder in 1998. He said that the party had a shot at winning the September 24 federal election, arguing that if the Christian Democrats lose 5 percent and the SPD gains 6 percent, then the Social Democrats could come out on top.
"This is a swing that is quite possible these days," said Mr. Machnig.
Already the polls are moving in the SPD's favor. A survey conducted for the ARD public broadcaster last Friday showed the party gaining 3 points since the leadership change was announced.
There hasn’t been this much optimism among Germany's center-left in some time. The party leaders are on the offensive. Now, SPD’s poll results just need to improve a bit more.