Who is Martin Schulz and should Angela Merkel be afraid of him?

Published - March 26, 2017 02:36 am IST

Designated chairman and top candidate for the upcoming general election Martin Schulz speaks during an extraordinary convention of the German Social Democratic party, SPD, in Berlin, Germany, Sunday, March 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

Designated chairman and top candidate for the upcoming general election Martin Schulz speaks during an extraordinary convention of the German Social Democratic party, SPD, in Berlin, Germany, Sunday, March 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

The September face-off between a policeman’s son and a pastor’s daughter could well prove to be a most keenly fought electoral battle in Berlin in decades among the Social Democrats (SDP) and the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The centre-left contender from Germany’s venerable SDP, Martin Schulz, is a one-time bookseller and veteran Member of the European Parliament of 23 years and its former president for two terms. Pitted against him is incumbent chancellor Angela Merkel, a physicist and formidable politician of the CDU, seeking a fourth term.

The quadrennial contest will test whether Mr. Schulz’s role on the front-lines of the regional bloc would be viewed as more advantageous in a country upon whom the mantle of Europe’s leadership, as well as of the entire free world, is being thrust.

Conversely, it remains to be seen whether voters will plump yet again for Ms. Merkel, whose nearly 12-year record at the helm of Germany, as well as her international standing, has occasioned comparisons with the country’s stewardship by her one-time mentor Helmut Kohl, if not the first post-war Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.

Surprise entry

Already, Mr. Schulz’s surprise entry into the fray, replacing the party vice-chairman Sigmar Gabriel, has seen a 10 percentage point surge in support for the SDP, with ratings within a narrow distance of its archrival. Yet, indications are that Germany’s oldest party is unlikely to lean further to the left, thus limiting its appeal among voters looking for an alternative.

The recently anointed candidate of the SDP could not be more unlike his pragmatic and consensus-building conservative contender. The outspoken Mr. Schulz admonished heads of EU states in December to “stop pretending that all success is national and all failure European,” in his farewell speech as president of the European Parliament. Last July, the aftershocks of London’s momentous vote to leave the bloc triggered speculation among eurosceptic fear-mongers on other capitals most likely to further break the union. Provocative enough for the plain-speaking former Parliament president to call for a directly elected European government along national lines to replace the unelected executive body. Mr. Schulz’s suggestion could not have seemed more ill-timed to pro-EU politicians hard put to counter the populist and anti-immigrant surge in the continent.

In contrast were the cautious and circumspect remarks of Ms. Merkel on announcing her decision in November to seek re-election. The woman, often described as iron chancellor, suggested that it would be “grotesque and absurd” to suppose she could solve all problems by herself. But paradoxically, rather than the contrast in personalities, it is in fact political commonalities which bind the two. That could prove far trickier to determine voter loyalty. The convergence in political stance between the CDU and the SDP is so considerable that the electorate could swing either way. That would leave the candidates dependent upon the respective ideological constituency for a decisive verdict.

Moreover, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Schulz are both staunch Europhiles who believe a stronger Germany and a stable Europe are mutually compatible, unlike some national leaders who view the 28-member bloc as a forum to advance domestic interests. A divergence of stance between the respective parties on austerity measures for debt-stricken Euro zone countries is well-known. Even so, differences between the two leaders could not be exaggerated. As Chancellor, Ms. Merkel was obliged to echo the hawkish line of party hard-liners. Conversely, Mr. Schulz’s more conciliatory tone on debt relief reflected the views of his party and popular sentiment.

Political outsider

As a relative outsider to domestic politics, Mr. Schulz will feel his shoulders lighter. He does not have to carry political baggage from his party’s current cohabitation with the CDU as part of a grand governing coalition. His centre-left stance of restoring trade unions to their former strength has rejuvenated the party cadre. But the SDP announced last Sunday that it would sever its traditional links with France’s Socialist Party in the country’s coming general elections. At home, this move is sure to narrow the scope of the party’s anticipated leftward slant, with potential to dampen enthusiasm among the SDP’s soaring new cadres. Ms. Merkel has a match in her unlikely rival.

GARIMELLA SUBRAMANIAM

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