Let’s Not Read Too Much into Schulzmania Yet

Martin Schulz has pushed Germany’s Social Democrats up in the polls, but another grand coalition is still likely.

German Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz, then president of the European Parliament, gives a speech in Brussels, February 2, 2016
German Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz, then president of the European Parliament, gives a speech in Brussels, February 2, 2016 (European Parliament)

Germany’s Social Democrats are gaining ground on the once unassailable conservative chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Since the party nominated Martin Schulz for the chancellorship last month, it has gone up in the polls. Whereas the Social Democrats were stuck in the low 20s for much of 2016, they have climbed up to nearly 30 percent support in the last few weeks.

One survey, released on Monday, even put the Social Democrats one point ahead of Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

Schulzmania

We shouldn’t be carried away by “Schulzmania” yet, though.

The Social Democrats’ newfound popularity might tell us more about how middle-of-the-road German voters have tired of Merkel after her being in power for nearly twelve years.

Christian Odendahl of the Center for European Reform argues on Twitter that Schulz also has the advantage that he’s not associated with the liberal “Hartz” reforms that were enacted under the last left-wing government.

Traditional Social Democratic voters have yet to forgive the party for weakening workers’ rights, even if the reforms helped lower unemployment.

Schulz was in Brussels and Strasbourg all that time, first leading the socialists in the European Parliament for nearly a decade and then presiding over the chamber from 2012 until the end of last year.

Coalition politics

Schulz draws voters from both the center-right and the left, which means another “grand coalition” between the two largest parties remains the most likely outcome of the election in September.

A big-enough Social Democratic Party would prevent Merkel from switching back to an alliance with the liberal Free Democrats, who are projected to — barely — cross the 5-percent election threshold.

On the other hand, a sizable right-wing delegation could make it impossible for Schulz to form a coalition of the left. That is assuming he would be willing to work with the far-left Die Linke.

I reported here in December that center-left parties across Europe are warming to collaborations with the far left. Germany’s Social Democrats have formed coalitions with the Greens and Die Linke at the local and state level. Portugal’s António Costa made a deal with the Communists in 2015 to come to power.

But the prospect of Die Linke, which gets most of its support from the former East Germany, joining the federal government in Berlin could scare away centrist voters in the industrial heartland of the former West Germany. Schulz will want to dispel rumors that he’s even considering a pact, but that could play into the hands of the Greens and Die Linke, who argue that a vote for the Social Democrats is a vote for Merkel.