When Elephants Collide: How Merkel And Schulz Each Have Their Own Idea About Justice
April 7, 2017
By FTI Consulting
“It´s about justice, stupid!”
Martin Schulz of Germany’s Social Democratic SPD party has to reconsider. After entering the race for chancellor against Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic CDU in late January, his campaign, centering on the rather vague promise of respect, dignity and justice for all, seemed to take off for good – so much so that his supporters already were talking about the unstoppable “Schulz train”. Well, the train derailed in late March in the tiny southwestern state of Saarland when voters in state elections failed to act as pollsters had predicted and handed Schulz’s SPD a major blow by giving the CDU a solid victory with a lead of more than 10 percentage points on the SPD. Saarland voters sent a clear message that they wanted their popular CDU minister-president, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, to remain in office, leading a grand coalition with the SPD as junior partners. CDU strategists in faraway Berlin who had helplessly looked on as the Schulz train took up speed couldn´t believe their luck: Schulz, who had wanted to capitalize both on his vagueness in substance and on his strategic openness to forge new alliances including a possible coalition with the socialists of Die Linke party, had in fact unintentionally managed to lure back traditional CDU voters who had disembarked Angela Merkel’s mothership in the wake of the refugee crisis.
The Saarland vote, insignificant as it was with barely one million voters, clearly has rocked the boat. Both major parties, CDU and SPD, remain close in the national polls, scoring in the mid-30s. But Merkel’s CDU is now invigorated and ready to put up a fierce fight from an underdog position for the elections in Germany’s most populous state of Northrhine-Westphalia (NRW), home of more than 16 million, in mid-May. Election results in NRW have in the past often provided early indications of the national votes.
NRW, often labelled the “SPD’s heart chamber” is the home to the working class bastions of the industrial Ruhr region of former glory, and is currently run by a coalition of SPD and Greens, with minister president Hannelore Kraft of the SPD at the helm. Like her colleague from the opposite side in Saarland, she enjoys a very solid standing with the voters, benefiting from her reputation as a “carer”. Add to that the fact that Martin Schulz himself is from NRW, and you can see why the Social Democrats are eager to bring the Saarland vote behind them, making use of their clear lead over the local CDU in NRW.
Some downsides, however, have to be accounted for from an SPD perspective: First, Kraft’s government has not fixed the state’s dire finances. Second, her government lost public trust on security matters, as evidenced by the events of New Year’s night 2015 in Cologne, and by major flaws in tracking terrorist suspect Anis Amri who committed the Berlin Christmas market atrocity in December 2016. And third, the SPD’s junior partner, the Greens, have not polled well, plummeting to about 6 per cent, dangerously close to the 5 per cent threshold below which a party receives not seat at all.
Enter the opposition Free Democrats, FDP: Ousted from the national parliament Bundestag in 2013 for having promised too much and delivered too little in government, they have since managed quite a comeback under their young leader Christian Lindner, incidentally also from NRW. Polls have the FDP at between 9 and 11 per cent in NRW right now, but Lindner also has his own challenges to meet: First, he must rally voters despite conceding that he will leave NRW for Berlin practically right after the local vote. Second, his strategy might seem confusing to some: While he fiercely rules out joining SPD and Greens in NRW to prolong the existing majority there, he is much less strict with himself when it comes to the prospect of the same alliance – the “traffic light coalition”, as pundits call it from the traditional colours of the SPD, Green and FDP parties – at national level some months later.
For Angela Merkel, all of the above has served as an energizer. At first a passive onlooker, she has entered the NRW campaign with aggressive attacks on the incumbents there, supported by mass circulation BILD paper which labelled NRW “the Greece of Germany.” Merkel is scrutinising Schulz’s idea of justice which to him, in concrete terms, means handing out more benefits to the jobless. Merkel in turn thinks justice is directly linked to job security, for which she seeks to foster innovation in order to prevent joblessness. The race is open, and the elephants of CDU and SPD competing for the job of Germany’s leader have woken up and realized how much is at stake for them personally.
Meanwhile, the xenophobic, populist AfD is down to 8 per cent in the polls, pretty much back to where they were just before the refugee crisis broke in September 2015.
The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting LLP, its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals, members or employees.
With over 25 years’ experience in journalism, political communications, and consulting, Mr. Kothé advises companies seeking relevant impact with politics and politicians. He founded FTI Consulting’s public affairs practice in Berlin in 2010. Previously, he served as spokesperson for German Federal President Horst Köhler. He also headed the communications and media team of the German liberal party, FDP. Starting his career in journalism at the BBC’s World Service in London, Mr. Kothé has also worked as a senior parliamentary correspondent for Germany’s news channel n-tv.