Photo Credits: Olaf Kosinsky/Skillshare.eu
After the third lost election of the SPD in a row, Angela Merkel’s challenger for the chancellery, Martin Schulz, faces an overall despair among his supporters. Following only a few weeks of enthusiasm and a new hope of being able to turn the plates, chances for him and the SPD to win Germany’s federal elections in September had already decreased on a daily bases. After this election, they tend to zero.
What has happened? After twelve years of running the government, Schulz’s SPD and its candidate Hannelore Kraft were kicked out of office in Germany’s most populous federal state North Rhine-Westphalia. Together with its former coalition partner, the Green Party, Kraft got defeated by the indistinct CDU candidate Armin Laschet. Only 31.2% voted for the SPD, down from 39.1 percent in 2012. The Greens were similarly unsuccessful: While 11.3% voted for them five years ago, yesterday the party barely beat the 5 percent threshold with only gaining 6.4%. The results allow a coalition of CDU and the Liberals (FDP). This means opposition for the former proud workers party SPD. The Economist titled this morning: “The “Schulz effect”, the surge in support for the SPD when Mr Schulz emerged as its chancellor candidate in January, is officially dead.”
With the results of yesterday, North Rhine-Westphalia, the former power-house of the SPD, sends a powerful message to Berlin: Even here, Martin Schulz, the former President of the European Parliament, was not successful in communicating his messages.
A new hope for the SPD
And that, after everything had started so well: At the beginning of the year, SPD head Sigmar Gabriel officially declared not to run for office, making space for a “new face”, Martin Schulz. Schulz, who has never had an official political position in Germany besides being a mayor in his hometown Würselen (ca. 37,000 inhabitants), got elected as new party head with historically 100% by the party convent. He was supposed to beat chancellor Merkel. Many commentators had stated that she was tired of office after 12 years anyway, especially after the refugee crisis had let to a decline of approval for her policies. Therefore, the task for Schulz seemed to be more realistic.
And the first polls indicated that Schulz was everything the SPD had needed. His popularity increased week after week. Schulz was perceived as a new “Messiah”, the hype around his person reached grotesque proportions. However, after the first election in the federal state Saarland with Schulz as party head, the CDU candidate won over her SPD contestant. His critiques who had stated that Schulz would first have to deliver more content to the narrative he had developed, felt vindicated. Despite this first signal of vulnerability and feeling a little irritated, Schulz’s supporters stood strong by his side. The responsibility for the next lost election in the federal state of Schleswig-Holstein was then quickly shifted to the deficiencies of the SPD candidate, Torsten Albig. Today, commentators were also quick to blame Hannelore Kraft for the loss in North Rhine-Westphalia: This would have been a victory over her, not over Martin Schulz. The question remains open, what was Schulz’s part in those elections? To be fair: maybe the expectations for Martin Schulz being the savior for the SPD were just too high. And it seems obvious that the local candidates have their part in the demise of the Social Democratic Party, too. But it is federal election year, these times are different. Every election in a German State is also a small election about the performance of the candidate for chancellery.
What happened to the “Schulz-Effect”?
Schulz started as a strong candidate with even stronger popularity votes: a real alternative to Merkel. However, the shock of the first popularity polls woke up the conservative voters base of the CDU, with the result of three lost elections in federal states. Voters did not only rally to Schulz’s but even more to Merkel’s support. His claim of “social justice” did not have the desired effect in a country which is often labeled as the “save haven” in Europe: compared to its neighbors, Germany has low unemployment and high investment rates, increasing tax revenues and even fewer refugees than two years ago. Why should people vote for a change?
Hence, the indications of today for the federal elections are pretty clear: if in the next weeks, Martin Schulz can’t find a secret recipe in terms of a persuasive and convincing story to tell and more content for his election program, Angela Merkel can sit back and relax.