Michaela Rehle / Reuters Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz, Germany, March 1, 2017.
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The Schulz Effect Faces Its First Test

Will Reviving Germany's Social Democrats Be Enough to Unseat Merkel?

With its new leader Martin Schulz, Germany’s center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has had a comeback, but it is unclear whether the boost will be enough to unseat Chancellor Angela Merkel in the federal elections in September. According to the most recent German polls, the SPD nudged ahead of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) by one percentage point after Schulz was elected to lead at a special party congress on March 19. But on Sunday, voters in Saarland, a small and typically CDU-leaning state in southwestern Germany, seemed not to take heed of the "Schulz surge" as they cast their ballots in regional elections.

Merkel's CDU came in first place with around 40 percent of the vote, while the SPD trailed in second place with just over 29 percent. Although Saarland generally leans conservative, it represents one of the many German heartlands Schulz and the SPD will need to win over if he is to become chancellor this September. Sunday's results in Saarland were certainly disappointing for the SPD, but the elections were admittedly very, very close. Had the German environmentalist Green Party taken more than five percent of the vote in Saarland—they came in at four percent—the SPD's combined forces with far-left Die Linke and the Greens would have given them a so-called red-red-green majority in Saarland, which is precisely the same configuration that Schulz intends to build in the German Bundestag this September.

DE-SCHRÖDERING THE SPD

Since the 1990s, the SPD has been accused of abandoning its working-class roots. The party’s most recent chancellor, Gerhard Schröder (who is a very close friend of Vladimir Putin), infamously betrayed the party’s socialist ideology in 2003 with his “Agenda 2010,” a radical set of reforms that cut unemployment benefits and effectively pushed down the minimum wage. Since then, Merkel’s conservative wing has continued to laud Agenda 2010 as a “competitive” economic policy for Germany, while the SPD’s hold within the nation’s parliament has shrunk to a fraction

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