With just six months until Germans go to the polls, Angela Merkel’s re-election is looking less certain by the week. Martin Schulz is a dangerous adversary and his Social Democrats are full of the kind of enthusiasm that the chancellor’s party lacks. By SPIEGEL Staff
In November 1998, Angela Merkel gave an interview to the photographer and writer Herlinde Koelbl. It was a moment of uncertainty in Merkel’s career, coming as it did just after Chancellor Helmut Kohl, on whose cabinet Merkel had served for seven years, lost that year’s general election. Kohl had failed to recognize that Germans had grown weary of his leadership and now, his party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), found itself in the opposition.
Merkel was lucky. The new CDU head Wolfgang Schäuble had chosen her as his secretary general. But she resolved at the time to not allow her career to end as Kohl’s had.
“At some point, I want to find the right moment to withdraw from politics,” she said in the interview with Koelbl. “That is much more difficult than I used to imagine. But I don’t want to be a half-dead wreck when I leave politics behind. Rather, I would like to pursue something else after a phase of boredom.”
Has Merkel missed the right moment? Has she stumbled into the Kohl trap?
Last Monday, Merkel was sitting in the headquarters of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to her CDU, looking as though she were a guest at her own funeral. Next to her was CSU head Horst Seehofer who, after months of castigating the chancellor for her refugee policy and threatening to withhold his support for her re-election campaign, had finally decided to back Merkel.
“I … um … as head of the CSU … um … can inform you that … um … I … um, um … have declared my support … um … and that of the CSU … um … for German Chancellor Angela Merkel … um, um … for the coming election campaign and for her candidacy as chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany … um, um … with the support of the party leadership and the executive committee.”
A Liberated SPD
It was by far the least cheerful launch of an election campaign in recent German history. And if the conservative campaign is as stuttering as Seehofer’s endorsement, then Merkel might as well hand over the keys to the Chancellery to her Social Democratic (SPD) challenger Martin Schulz right now.
What a shift! Just three weeks ago, it looked as though the only intrigue in the coming election would be how badly the SPD would lose to Merkel and whether the party would end up in the opposition instead of in its current role as junior coalition partner. Almost all Social Democrats expected that erstwhile party head Sigmar Gabriel would lead the SPD in the campaign as chancellor candidate — and lead the party into certain defeat. Instead, though, Gabriel unexpectedly resigned and handed over the reins to Schulz — and the party suddenly seems liberated.
Is the Merkel Era approaching its end? Is the mood changing? The numbers haven’t yet become clear and surveys aren’t the same thing as election results — as we learned from Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. But the country’s political mood is changing and even people in Merkel’s orbit say that “the trend is clear.” It is currently on the side of the SPD.
According to the pollsters at Infratest dimap, fully 50 percent of Germans want the next government to be led by the SPD, a result that is 14 percentage points higher than prior to the last general election in 2013. Only 39 percent want to see a government led by Merkel’s conservatives. Schulz is also well ahead of Merkel on the question regarding which candidate voters would choose were they able to vote for individual candidates instead of parties. It has been almost 20 years since the SPD has held a similar lead on that question. That was in March 1998 when Gerhard Schröder announced his candidacy against Helmut Kohl — a campaign he would go on to win.
When Schulz showed up last Monday evening in the textile factory in Bocholt, a city in Germany’s far west near the Dutch border, he was received with rhythmic applause as supporters held signs aloft reading: “Schulz Now!” and “Time for Martin!”
Turning Them Away at the Doors
The resuscitation of the country’s oldest political party is visible everywhere: The North Rhine-Westphalia chapter of the SPD received 140 registrations for a seminar on campaign stands despite having expected just 25. The number of new members signing up is higher than it has been in recent memory, with over 4,600 new members registering online since Schulz’s selection as the party’s candidate.
In the southwestern German city of Freiburg, the local SPD office ran out of party books for new members and the party has encountered the same problem in the states of Saarland and Lower Saxony. When Schulz visited a local chapter in the northeast of Hamburg last week, hundreds of members wanted to attend. The party changed venues but there was still only room for about 100 people. It has been a long time since the SPD has had to turn people away at the doors.
Among conservatives, concerns are mounting. “One can have an effect on survey numbers, but it is extremely difficult to reverse a change in mood,” says CSU head Horst Seehofer.
Merkel’s success had long come at the expense of the SPD. The center-left party suffered due to its chair Sigmar Gabriel — because of his volatile nature and tendency to push away even those who wanted only the best for him. Now, Gabriel has stepped aside, a move for which he deserves credit. Doing so has placed the spotlight squarely on the weaknesses of the chancellor.
“In the 12th year of her tenure, Merkel is now experiencing the normal weariness with incumbents experienced by Adenauer in 1959-60, Kohl in the years following 1989 and Margaret Thatcher following 11 years as prime minister,” says Andreas Rödder, a historian based in the city of Mainz. But it’s not just that the electorate has grown tired of Merkel. She is also leading a conservative alliance that is more fractured than ever before. The CSU-CDU peace summit held in Munich a week ago is nothing more than a temporary cease-fire and Merkel’s aura as a chancellor who is level-headed in times of crisis took a significant hit in the summer of 2015 when she opened the country’s borders to refugees. It was an act of humanity, but it didn’t just divide Germany, but also Europe. Indeed, the EU continues to suffer from Merkel’s solitary decision even today.
Merkel’s chancellorship is showing its wear and tear, and that is where the danger lies. It is often the case that the electorate’s vote for a challenger is more of a vote against the incumbent. And it has long been true in Germany that political power erodes over time. Ludwig Erhard and Helmut Schmidt were discarded because they no longer followed their own parties. Helmut Kohl got driven out of office because, after 16 years in the Chancellery, he seemed like a monument to himself: gray and fossilized.
Boos and Whistles
Merkel was long able to profit from the fact that she rarely triggered strong emotions. She gently modernized the CDU, which allowed the party to attract a different group of voters. She appealed to young women and residents of large cities, constituencies that had never before voted for the CDU or CSU. Some conservative voters turned their backs on the party, but in sum she won over more voters than she repelled.
The refugee crisis, though, changed everything. Since the summer of 2015, Merkel has become extremely polarizing, not unlike Hillary Clinton was in the recent U.S. campaign. “There are now people who would rather chop off their hands than vote for Merkel,” says one Merkel confidant. When the chancellor was campaigning in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania last summer ahead of elections in the state, she occasionally appeared only in front of hand-picked audiences because her speeches would otherwise have been drowned out by boos and whistles.