By Christiane Hoffmann and René Pfister
He started with a bang. But for months, Social Democratic chancellor candidate Martin Schulz has been having trouble gaining traction on the campaign trail. Could it be that he doesn’t want power badly enough?
The stage is ready for the day’s star guest. Light gray, leather lounge chairs are positioned in the middle of the atrium of the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) national headquarters in Berlin. The women have already taken their places. Jasmin Tabatabai, a well-known German actress has come, as has Turkish-German novelist Hatice Akyün and Katarina Barley, the SPD’s general secretary.
The seat in the middle is still free and Barley grabs the microphone and says, “I’d like to welcome the George Clooney of the SPD!”
As the audience gives its applause, a man with rectangular glasses enters the stage. He wears a garland around his bald head and a striped tie that don’t suggest much in the way of modern-day sartorial ambitions. It’s all a little bit embarrassing for the guest. He squints into the lights and waves to the audience shyly. Then he sits down, crossing his legs and placing his hands on his knee.
In 2006, People magazine named Clooney the “sexiest man alive.” On this gloomy March day, Martin Schulz has been the SPD’s chancellor candidate for one and a half months, the craziest period of his life to that point. For many years, the man led a rather unassuming existence as a member of the European Parliament in Brussels. Now, though, he suddenly found himself in the role of SPD savior, saving the party from a curse that had kept it from achieving success for years. He was the challenger who could end Merkel’s era as chancellor after 12 endless years. Female members of the party’s youth wing shriek sometimes when they see him.
It may very well be this evening when Schulz realizes that something isn’t quite right — that he may be a lot of things, but he isn’t all that his followers want him to be. Akyün says, “We need politicians like Justin Trudeau, politicians who stand up and say: ‘I’m a feminist.'” The women look to Schulz with high expectations, but he says nothing. Attractive Justin with his curly brown locks of hair! A man who, if he weren’t prime minister of Canada, could be an underwear model. Yet another absurd comparison.
At some point in the summer, the bubble burst. Schulz would then say that he never wanted this kind of hysteria — the tweets like: “The Schulz Train … Next stop: The Chancellery.” Nor was he pleased with the Communist-like 100 percent he received when elected as the party’s new chairman.
But Schulz didn’t want to mess things up with the women on that evening in March. The hype was still in full force — and like some voracious animal, it had to be fed. If he became chancellor, he finally said, women would be appointed to half the ministerial positions allotted to his party in the coalition government. The remark drew massive applause, and once again the SPD had made a promise it hadn’t made yet during the campaign.
Germany has a political roller-coaster ride behind it. At the start of the year, it appeared that voters had become weary of Chancellor Merkel. Polls indicated there could be a change of power and that Merkel, after three terms in office, might not follow in the steps of Helmut Kohl, who governed Germany for 16 years. Only months later, however, some within the SPD are already mulling a future for the party without Schulz at its helm.
Nothing is final yet, and the two only just had their only televised debate over the weekend. It isn’t yet clear whether Schulz will get a bump. But the question remains of how Schulz could have risen and then fallen again in the polls that quickly? And how could Merkel have regained so much momentum, after looking so worn down in January to the point that she almost seemed like she was voluntarily ready to leave office?
But the state of the country is also at stake. It’s been said that the election campaign has been dull, but that’s only one perspective. The country is stewing — with people screaming and full of hate. That also is a function of the fact that the two candidates, despite their attempts to distinguish themselves from one another, are actually not very far apart on most major policy issues.
Everything takes a little longer than planned on this sweltering hot Friday night at the beginning of July. Chancellor Merkel has invited world leaders to the G-20 summit in Hamburg and the leaders’ motorcades have trouble making their way through the city, in part because of the Black Bloc. But finally, the security people take their positions and things begin moving in the VIP boxes of the Elbphilharmonie concert hall. French first lady Brigitte Macron arrives first, wearing a pantsuit that looks as though it had been painted on. She’s followed by Melania Trump, who wears a white dress adorned with thousands of fringes that flap like a curtain in the wind. Donald Trump waves and receives scant applause.
Finally, Merkel makes her appearance wearing gray, crumpled pants and a glaring pink blazer, followed by her sullen husband Joachim Sauer. A German couple. But something unbelievable happens. The applause from the upper crust of Hamburg’s high society begins to swell. It’s as if Mahatma Gandhi has arisen from the dead and entered the box. Shouts of joy can be heard in a sudden outburst of enthusiasm.
Merkel smiles benevolently — she’s used to being admired, after all. But for a moment she transcends politics, seemingly on a plane somewhere between Gandhi and the Queen. The only thing still missing, it seems, is the Nobel Peace Prize. The G-20 protesters outside are burning barricades, but the chancellor couldn’t be any more distant from all that.
Such is the situation at the beginning of July. On the Monday after the G-20 summit, SPD candidate Schulz’s motorcade makes a stop in Kösching, a small market town located near Ingolstadt. The candidate has few bad weeks behind him, with a trio of significant defeats, including poor showings for his party in state elections in Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia. Now, in the wake of extremely violent G-20 protests, reports in the newspapers claim the Social Democrats have no understanding of security. Olaf Schulz, Hamburg’s SPD mayor, had promised that the summit would be secure and even said it would be comparable to the jovial atmosphere of the city’s annual harbor celebration. Merkel, as always, displayed her prudence by not promising anything at all.
Within the SPD, people have begun saying that only a miracle can save Schulz. He’s leading, as has now become clear, a manic-depressive political party, which may also explain why he has decided to travel to Kösching. The small town has a Social Democrat as its mayor — a singularity in conservative Upper Bavaria, a region dominated by the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Apparently miracles are still possible in Kösching.
Mayor Andrea Ernhofer hands the town’s guest book to Schulz. An autograph card signed by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the SPD is taped to it. “We’ve taken the first step toward the Chancellery in Kösching,” Schulz says in his speech on the town square, given to an audience of around 50 Social Democrats and two sunshades.
In the campaign bus on the way to Munich, journalists ask a terrible question — one that has become something of a daily ritual:
Hasn’t the election already been decided?
Schulz doesn’t want to come across like Peer Steinbrück did when he served as the SPD’s chancellor candidate in 2013. Back then, Steinbrück appeared to have given up all hope well before election day and even allowed himself to be photographed showing his middle finger.
The campaign, Schulz responds, hasn’t even begun yet. More than half the voters still haven’t made up their minds, he insists, and his party is more motivated than it has been in years.
But like Steinbrück before him, Schulz can be something of a loose cannon. The sentences that come out of his mouth tend not to be as smooth as those imparted by Angela Merkel. In Munich, Schulz’s bus pulls to a stop in front of a glass building. He’s visiting the company Time in the Box, a firm that uses virtual reality to create digital time travel. The owner says that they are just about to reproduce the first time that Bertha Benz drove a car at the end of the 19th century.
“Can you program a virtual election victory?” Schulz asks. He laughs, but there’s a ring of “I want to go home” in it.
Campaign reporters hungry for candidate gaffs begin scrawling in their notebooks and Schulz immediately sees what he has done.
Program a virtual election victory!
The question is how things could have pivoted so quickly. Election campaigns are certainly focused on issues, but it is also always a question of whether the person running really wants the job or not.
Gerhard Schröder had always aspired to become chancellor — even as a young man. But Schulz’s candidacy was a product of chance, at least in part.
Everything likely would have turned out differently if Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the SPD hadn’t pushed so hard to become German president. And for a long time, it appeared that Merkel would be successful in ignoring the foreign minister’s claim to the presidency. But when her conservative party failed to deliver a suitable candidate for the largely symbolic head of state role, she had no other choice but to support Steinmeier’s candidacy.
Shortly thereafter, the chancellor called Sigmar Gabriel, then head of the SPD and vice chancellor, and told him she was very sorry, but she could not make one Social Democrat the German president and then turn around and extend the term of another Social Democrat as president of the European Parliament in Brussels. That, at least, is the narrative told within the SPD.
For Schulz, reaching the office of European Parliament president already marked the pinnacle of his political career. As a young man, he never believed he would make it that far. An addiction to alcohol in his early 20s brought Schulz close to suicide. His brother Erwin, a doctor, provided him with treatment and Schulz quit drinking and began a constant, if unspectacular, career. At 31, he became the mayor of his hometown Würselen. He had no challenger in that election. “The other parties didn’t name a candidate,” the official city record states. Seven years later, Schulz became a member of the European Parliament, where he served as a parliamentarian for 20 years.
As a politician, Schulz has a great need for harmony — which is in part a product of the years he spent maturing as a politician in the unique biotope of politics that is Brussels. Of course, he had enemies there — the right-wing extremists with France’s Front National or British UKIP populist Nigel Farage, whose diatribes against the German were as disgraceful as they were eloquent.
Still, he also found plenty of like-minded groups who know no partisan politics and believe in nothing other than the grand idea of the European Union. Conservative politician Jean-Claude Juncker and left-leaning Schulz were like the chairmen of this community. Schulz organized majorities in parliament for the European Commission president and, in exchange, was given influence in decisions made by the EU executive. Schulz learned in Brussels that politics is a constant give and take, service between friends.
There are few words that Schulz uses more often. Juncker is a “friend,” as is former French President François Hollande, his successor Emmanuel Macron and, of course, Sigmar Gabriel, from whom he inherited the role of SPD party chair. All are friends.
Merkel, on the other hand, essentially has no friends in politics and has always done well by keeping her distance from everyone. In contrast to Schulz, she tends to be very formal in her language, because she has learned that using more personal language often doesn’t mean much. For years, she has addressed Horst Seehofer — the powerful leader of the CSU — by his first name, but that hasn’t changed the fact that he can be at her throat one day and praising her to high heaven the next.
She’s experienced pretty much every possible treatment from Seehofer. At times, he has slammed her on the stage at a CSU party convention like a little school girl, only to turn around at the presentation of the joint CDU-CSU political platforms for the current election in early July and say that he trusts the chancellor blindly.
Standing next to Seehofer at the CDU’s national headquarters in Berlin that day, there was little Merkel could do but raise her eyebrows in irony. You could see what was going through her head. Was she really going to say that she also had blind faith in a man who had made her life hell during the refugee crisis?
She neither wanted to follow one obvious lie with another nor create any kind of sensation. Finally, she said “even a blind hen sometimes finds a grain of corn,” a sentence so opaque that it was open to almost any kind of interpretation.
Friendship in politics? Merkel has already ended too many of them to still believe in those kinds of fairy tales: her mentor Helmut Kohl, with his arrogance; there was Roland Koch, the scheming erstwhile governor of the state of Hesse; and Friedrich Merz, an irascible and powerful former senior CDU politician. Ultimately, Merkel defeated them all. She is infinitely disciplined, only ocassionally allowing herself a pinch of schadenfreude as a reward.
Since Schulz’s arrival in Berlin, the old give and take method has no longer worked. He has had to become a lot tougher, which doesn’t really suit his personality. Even the path to chancellor candidate was rough. Schulz made it clear early on that he felt he was the right person for the office, but he didn’t want to stab his friend Sigmar Gabriel in the back. He wanted the shift to be gentle, with Gabriel ceding the candidacy and, in turn, being rewarded with a handsome ministerial post.
But Gabriel dithered and delayed and the two friends soon came to a point where they could no longer speak openly with each other. At the end of the year, Gabriel summoned a confidant and asked him to write a speech explaining why he wouldn’t pursue the party’s candidacy. But he warned the aide not to discuss it with anyone, especially not Schulz.
Distrust between Schulz and Gabriel is now overshadowing the election campaign. For weeks, it was Foreign Minister Gabriel who was hitting the headlines. After the G-20 riots in Hamburg, Gabriel suggested Merkel ought to step down as a way of diverting critical attention from his own party’s failures in the city. He also issued a travel advisory suggesting Germans should not go to Turkey following a string of arrests of the country’s nationals there. Finally, he implied that his party was not interested in continuing a coalition government with Merkel’s conservatives.
Schulz was furious. If anyone in the party was to make those decisions, he thought, then it should be the party chair. But Schulz didn’t rebuke Gabriel publicly, preferring to call him and tell him off privately. Schulz has since developed a merciless view of his predecessor’s time as the party’s leader. He doesn’t speak openly about it because internal peace within the SPD is too important to him.
Gerhard Schröder’s law firm has an attractive office in Hannover’s Zoo district, with photos of the chancellor hung on the walls inside. Schröder, of course, was the last SPD politician to reside in the Chancellery. Schröder doesn’t want to give Schulz any public advice, but he does feel one shouldn’t be too squeamish on the campaign trail. In Schröder’s view, Merkel’s weak spots are the refugees she allowed into the country in 2015. He’s even come up with a mean-spirited, but also brilliant one-liner for it. Merkel, he says, has a heart, but no plan. It is the kind of thing that could immediately have been turned into a campaign poster.
An Inability to Gain Traction
On a Sunday in mid-June, Schulz is sitting on the stage at the Berliner Ensemble Theater presenting his new book. SPD survey results have plunged back down to where they were before Schulz took over leadership of the party in January. “I often have difficult days when I open the newspaper,” Schulz says from the stage.
He says he feels as though he has been unfairly treated by the media — that assessments of his candidacy have been more critical and attacks against him have been more pointed than those levelled at Merkel. Schulz doesn’t believe he is particularly sensitive when it comes to criticism, but he didn’t imagine that it would be quite this harsh.
He has been portrayed in headlines as “Schulz the Spender” and “Psycho Schulz.” It has been written that he has “all the charm of a bank teller” and that he “looks like a train conductor.” Having never obtained his Abitur, Germany’s college-prep high school diploma, he is also sensitive to critics who say he isn’t well enough educated to be chancellor.
Sitting on stage at the Berliner Ensemble, Schulz rattles off the entire list of indignations, revealing his wounds for all to see. He’s not opposed to being pitied just a little bit. The SPD candidate doesn’t have a thick skin and he cares what is written about him. Indeed, he inhales every article, even the mean ones. “I read the critical analyses very attentively,” Schulz says. “You can learn a lot from them.”
Merkel never complains about press coverage. In fact, she tends to treat articles about herself more like novels: They provide her with a bit of entertainment, but are largely irrelevant. In her universe, it is a mistake to admit even the slightest bit of vulnerability. Her strategy for getting back at those who would criticize her is to disregard them completely.
Over the years, Merkel has developed a system for dealing with the media and the public — one that grants her almost full control. Whereas Schulz has spent weeks touring through the country with journalists in tow and answering their questions over lengthy dinners, Merkel only rarely meets with reporters on background. She trusts only three or four people in the Chancellery, and they only speak with journalists when they are given the green light to do so.
Furthermore, she seldom reveals anything about her private life. In every campaign, she’ll offer up a favorite cake recipe, but that’s about it. In this campaign, she revealed that she mashes rather than purées the potatoes she uses for the potato soup that she famously serves to guests and to her husband Joachim Sauer. When critical questions are asked of her, they are often posed in an almost apologetic tone. “Do you have a minor weakness?” the celebrity newsmagazine Bunte asked her recently, as though it was sacrilegious to imagine that Merkel might have a large weakness. When Handelsblatt recently held a public interview with Merkel, publisher Gabor Steingart gave her an impassioned hug when it was over.
Schulz was furious when the CDU attacked the SPD mayor of Hamburg, Olaf Scholz, following the G-20 riots in the city. For him, it was proof of the deeply perfidious campaign being run by Merkel’s Chancellery. Prior to the campaign, Schulz made the decision to play fair: no personal attacks, no kicking his opponent when she was down, no picking on weaknesses, nothing that would call her honor into question. “If that results in me losing, then I lose.” His message is clear: If I don’t win, then I was too good for evil politics.
But is that really true? If you ask Schulz what went wrong in his campaign, he mentions Hannelore Kraft, the former SPD governor of North Rhine-Westphalia who was once seen as a potential challenger to Merkel. He says he never should have listened to Kraft’s request that he tread lightly in NRW ahead of the state election there in May. The result, he says, was that people got the impression that he was too hesitant. Kraft ultimately resigned after her party lost the election.
In reality, though, Schulz also played a large role in his own campaign’s inability to gain traction. Shortly after he announced his candidacy and took over leadership of his party in March, support for the SPD skyrocketed, almost pulling even with Merkel’s conservatives. And Schulz, suddenly, was afraid to do anything, apprehensive that he might accidentally send his poll numbers back down again. The several weeks between his announcement and the pair of state elections in May were essentially wasted, with voters learning little about Schulz other than the fact that he wanted to be chancellor.
Schulz says that one reason for taking over leadership of the SPD was that he wanted to help prevent his party’s collapse. In contrast to Merkel, Schulz is deeply loyal to his party and he can still remember the day that he joined the SPD. Like so many of his generation, Schulz signed up because of Willy Brandt, and if you believe what he says, he has suffered greatly in recent years due to the SPD’s rather diminished fortunes.
Much of the SPD’s loss of support came as the direct result of the welfare cuts imposed by then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the 2000s. The cuts have been widely crediting with streamlining the German economy since then, but they were and continue to be wildly unpopular among the SPD party base. Schulz believes they were essentially the right thing to do, but he is convinced that implementation was too brutal. In 2004, he and Schröder engaged in a spectacular back-and-forth in a meeting of party leadership. “Those who mistake the SPD for a military barracks shouldn’t be surprised about 30,000 deserters,” Schulz roared at Schröder.
When he became the SPD’s candidate this spring, he saw it as his first task to unify the party. He had analyzed the mistakes made by both Schröder and Gabriel and concluded that the most important thing was to have the party united behind him.
That’s why he decided to turn away from a top-down leadership style and strive for greater consensus. Instead of issuing threats and orders, he wanted the party to follow him out of conviction. “I have a different style,” Schulz says, though he knows full well that some have begun to interpret that style as softness.
Schulz never saw the SPD exclusively as a vehicle for his own climb to the top as Schröder did — or as Merkel viewed the CDU. Those two were always primarily focused on themselves, but because they strived so hard for personal success, some of that success also rubbed off on their parties.
When it comes to his relationship to the SPD, Schulz is extremely old fashioned. The antics of politicians like Emmanuel Macron in France, Christian Lindner of Germany’s business-friendly Free Democrats and Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, all of whom treat political parties merely as a stage for their own out-sized personalities, are foreign to Martin Schulz.
Schulz has a good overview of the state of Social Democracy in Europe, having witnessed the decline of the Labour Party in Britain and the collapse of the Socialist Party in Greece. One of his friends is François Hollande, who presided over the downfall of the Socialists in France.
Schulz is also friendly with new French President Macron, but his relationship with him is much more distanced than it is to Hollande. Schulz saw how Macron was first promoted by Hollande and then turned his back on him. He understood it from a purely rational standpoint. In the end, the French Socialists were a dead horse from which Macron had to dismount. Still, Schulz never could have mustered the iciness that Macron needed to break first with Hollande and then with the Socialists to found his own party En Marche! — which is more of a left-leaning laissez faire party than it is socialist.
Schulz would never even think of betraying the party of Willy Brandt. He would rather go down with the ship. “We are the party that stood in Hitler’s way,” Schulz says. It is a comment that is completely free of false pathos, really more of an assertion of fact.
Issues, of course, are also important. Election platforms are wonderful things, Merkel insists. Her gaze jumps from camera to camera. What, after all, is nicer than thinking about the next four years, especially now that there are a few billion euros to spend? “It allows you to dream a little bit.”
The reporters dig out their pens again. A dreaming Merkel? That’s news. Is she going to say something consequential after all? Merkel pauses briefly for effect before saying: “Did you know, for example, that our antitrust laws are inconsistent with the platform economy?”
Not surprisingly, the answer is “no.”
It’s Merkel’s old trick. Whenever people start saying that she is avoiding substance, she becomes ruthlessly substantive. This is a woman who wrote a Ph.D. thesis that is so complicated that nobody even understands its title. If she thinks a journalist is being stupid, she always has a detail up her sleeve that is sure to baffle all those around her. She loves the blank stares that result.
Early on, when the reporters were still full of energy, Merkel said: “Our platform is focused on the future” and “our platform is universal prosperity.” And she said: “It is something the voters can rely on.”
But Merkel wants to make this a personality-based campaign, one she seeks to win 3:0, says an SPD official. “That means she can afford a 0:0 tie on content.” At the moment, it looks as though her plan will succeed. Nobody can really say exactly what she plans to do in the next four years. She is the candidate, that should be enough. For a long time, she was opposed to Brussels being granted more powers, but now she agrees with French President Emmanuel Macron that the EU needs a finance minister — at least in principle. But something can always come up to change her mind: Her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, for example, or a state election or the situation in the world at large.
Recently, she raised the possibility that the internal combustion engine could be banned in the future, a comment that angered Horst Seehofer. He’s the head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s CDU, but also the governor of Bavaria, a state that is one of the world’s leading carmakers. She then reversed course, telling Bettina Schausten, a journalist with public broadcaster ZDF, that such a ban likely wouldn’t come until “the end of the century.” The end of the century. She is almost like a pope in the Middle Ages, thinking far into the future.
Martin Schulz has done all he can, having conducted endless discussions with the SPD leadership. Ahead of the party’s convention in June, there were 1,605 amendment requests and voters now know that the SPD would like pensions on average to be 48 percent of salaries and want the top tax rate to be 45 percent. The party’s platform is very concrete — but will that be enough to defeat Merkel?
Schulz’s platform is that of a moderate Social Democrat and there is nothing in it that might shake up the country. He would like to invest more than Merkel, he wants to introduce a universal health insurance scheme to replace the current system that is split between public and private policies. He wants better schools, more police officers and greater respect for people even if they didn’t get their diploma from a top-tier high school.
It all makes a lot of sense, even if it is a bit strait-laced. Will such a platform allow him to compete with an incumbent Chancellor Merkel who has spent 12 years in power implementing pretty much everything near and dear to the Social Democratic heart? A chancellor who has done away with the last remaining vestiges of conservatism? When Merkel paved the way for gay marriage in Germany last June by allowing conservative lawmakers to vote their consciences instead of requiring them to adhere to the party line, it represented a success for the SPD. On one hand. On the other, she had once again robbed the center-left of an issue on which it could campaign.
“She is clever. I don’t like talking about it,” says Schulz.
The SPD chancellor candidate has been hoping to find an issue where he can back her into a corner. Merkel has promised, for example, to increase the defense budget, something Germans are against. Is that his opportunity?
The problem is that he can’t really attack Merkel from the left because she already leans so far to that side of the political spectrum on so many issues. Early on in his campaign, Schulz proposed moderate adjustments to Schröder’s welfare system, but almost immediately dropped the issue when he was widely accused of being a left-wing populist. Merkel’s Achilles’ heel is refugee policy, but Schulz would only be able to attack her from the right. Sigmar Gabriel, the previous SPD leader who is now foreign minister, has tried to do so a couple of times, but Schulz isn’t interested. He has consistently supported Merkel’s course on the refugee issue and he doesn’t want to open himself up to accusations that he is betraying his own principles.
The result is a campaign in which a right-leaning Social Democratic challenger is campaigning against a left-leaning conservative incumbent. Germany doesn’t need to worry, no matter who wins. Both candidates are sensible through and through — and products of a country that has learned that the more modest its role on the world stage, the more successful it is.
They both believe that democracy can only function within a relatively narrow political corridor and they reject radical politics and rhetoric as a result. But this type of campaigning comes at price. Those who think that it is all extremely boring should make the trip to Bitterfeld.
It is indescribably loud this afternoon on the promenade on the shores of Goitzschesee lake in Bitterfeld. On the stage up in front, the chancellor is yelling into a microphone and the speakers are turned up to maximum volume. “Look how nice it is here,” Merkel says. “Get lost! Get lost!” her detractors chant in response. Some of those present had enough foresight to bring along ear plugs.
One woman, who has been standing in the blazing sun for half an hour and screaming, says she is doing it for her children and grandchildren. Her voice is slowly getting hoarse, but one can see that it is doing her good to scream. The anger needs an outlet.
The woman used to vote consistently for the Christian Democrats, but now, she says, “she” has to go. “She” is Merkel. The woman doesn’t know who should replace the chancellor. “The other one isn’t any better,” she says. But she doesn’t care. The main thing is that “she” is gone.
Merkel sees her campaign in eastern Germany as a kind of resistance. She says she likes going to places “where you have to fight for democracy.” But her adversaries aren’t shaved-headed neo-Nazis — they are wearing jeans and T-shirts, and are both old and young and many of them are women. In Bitterfeld, the local candidate for the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) won 33 percent of the vote during 2016 elections in the eastern state of Saxony Anhalt.
Merkel’s resistance lies in the fact that she is here at all. She refers to it as “showing the flag.” CDU supporters are sitting up front while the whistling hecklers are at the back. Most of the audience is standing silently in between those two groups, watching the spectacle with a combination of curiosity and uneasiness. One imagines that it is a relatively accurate reflection of the situation in eastern Germany as a whole.
The CDU used to win almost 40 percent of the vote in Bitterfeld. But ever since Merkel transformed her party into a right-leaning SPD and let the refugees in, she no longer reaches many voters in the town.
Up on the stage, Merkel squints into the sun. She looks across the square to the corner where the whistles are coming from with a look of disgust on her face. Essentially, the chancellor has a great deal of disdain for eastern Germans who are unable to value freedom and democracy. She has trouble relating to people who are afraid of change. And she isn’t willing to make concessions to any form of resentment. From the stage, she tells the demonstrators what she thinks of them. For Merkel, they are the ones who “only yell around.”
BROTHERS AND SISTERS
Merkel no longer has any doubts about her victory in this campaign. She tries to conceal that certainty, knowing that visible overconfidence could be dangerous. But sometimes, she is on such a roll that it just slips out.
Last Tuesday, during her traditional summer press conference, she was asked a question about her refugee policies — and answered that she would be taking a closer look early next year. So as not to sound arrogant, she quickly said that “she should add that we have an upcoming election.” But she could hardly have said it with greater arrogance.
Schulz, for his part, has begun using the phrase “when I am chancellor” much less often in his speeches. He knows that it just makes him look absurd. And he simply isn’t able to muster the kind of self-deception that is sometimes necessary in political campaigns.
Fundamentally, he is a great admirer of Merkel’s. When she told him a couple of years ago that she had read a profile of him in DER SPIEGEL, Schulz was incredibly proud because the great German chancellor had taken an interest in him.
For a brief moment this spring, Schulz was able to profit from the fact that, after 12 years, Germans had grown a little bit tired of Merkel. There is a great desire for change in the country, but it doesn’t seem as though Schulz is in a position to benefit. He is too similar to Merkel. They are almost exactly the same age and their political convictions are extremely close to each other. If Angela Merkel could mold her ideal vice chancellor, the result would likely look an awful lot like Martin Schulz.
At the end of the day, the Germans have a choice between a chancellor who has proven her ability but who governs with an almost unlimited degree of self-contentedness. And a candidate who has yet to prove that he has the necessary desire for power.
In mid-June, back at the Berliner Ensemble theater, moderator Amelie Fried decided to play a role-playing game with Schulz called “Elevator Speech.” She asked the candidate to imagine he was in an elevator with his boss — the electorate in this case. He had exactly two minutes to convince his boss why he would make a better chancellor than Angela Merkel.
Fried started her stopwatch and Schulz began — but it quickly became clear that he hadn’t totally understood. “Let’s imagine for a moment that Angela Merkel was my boss,” he said. “I would tell her …”
Psychologists were greatly amused by Schulz’s faux pas, revealing as it did his view of the political power structures in Germany. It made it look as though the SPD candidate thought he was applying to Merkel for a job and it was up to her to decide whether he got it or not.
Still, these two minutes fulfilled a dream for Martin Schulz: Finally, he was able to speak with Merkel and tell her what he thought. “You haven’t done a bad job for 12 years,” Schulz said to the virtual Merkel. “Quite good actually. But we need more courage.”
His words could easily be interpreted as an application for the position as Merkel’s junior coalition partner.