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The rise of Trump has led to an unexpected twist in Germany’s election: A resurgent left / The rise of Trump has led to an unexpected twist in Germany’s election: A resurgent left
The rise of Trump has led to an unexpected twist in Germany’s election: A resurgent left
By Anthony Faiola February 16 at 5:09 PM
BERLIN — The unconventional administration of President Trump may be causing consternation among American liberals. But here in Germany, the anchor of the European Union, Trump’s rise is helping fuel an unexpected surge of the left.
What is happening in Germany is the kind of Trump bump perhaps never foreseen by his supporters — a boost not for the German nationalists viewed as Trump’s natural allies but for his fiercest critics in the center left. The Social Democrats (SPD) have bounced back under the charismatic Martin Schulz, the former head of the European Parliament who took over as party chairman last month and is now staging a surprisingly strong bid to unseat Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In a country that stands as a painful example of the disastrous effects of radical nationalism, Schulz is building a campaign in part around bold attacks on Trump. He has stopped well short of direct comparisons to Adolf Hitler, but Schulz recently mentioned Trump in the same speech in which he heralded his party’s resistance to the Nazis in the lead-up to World War II.
[German politicians demand new deportation centers, re-vetting of migrants]
“We will never give up our values, our freedom and democracy, no matter what challenges we are facing,” Schulz said in a recent speech. He added, “That a U.S. president wants to put up walls, is thinking aloud about torture and attacks women, religious communities, minorities, people with handicaps, artists and intellectuals with brazen and dangerous comments is a breach of taboo that’s unbearable.”
His anti-Trump platform comes as Germans are questioning American power more than at any point since the end of the Cold War, illustrating an erosion of allied faith in the new era of “America first.” A recent poll found that only 22 percent of Germans see the United States led by Trump as a “reliable partner” — putting it only one percentage point above Russia.
The traditional left remains in disarray in France and Britain. But buoyed by Schulz’s approach, his party last week pulled ahead of Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats in opinion polls for the first time in six years. Elections are not until September, but analysts are giving the SPD, under Schulz, its best chances to regain power since Gerhard Schröder lost to Merkel in 2005.
“There are different factors that are coming together for the SPD,” said Ralf Stegner, the party’s deputy chairman. “Schulz has provided a new impulse for people who were waiting to come back . . . but also, the new American president, because Trump’s presidency has politicized the German public, making them more active and aware.”
Without naming names, Merkel, who was perhaps closer to President Barack Obama than any world leader, has taken aim at Trump — criticizing, for instance, his refugee ban. But Schulz has also accused Merkel of being too diplomatic.
[In Germany, the language of Nazism is no longer buried in the past]
Germany, which shoulders the history of Nazi tyranny, is an outlier in containing the current spread of me-first nationalism. Even as far-right parties and isolationist politics gain ground elsewhere in Europe, the largest right-wing populist party here — the Alternative for Germany — has fallen slightly in the polls since Trump’s election.
At the same time, left-wing parties in Germany have seen a jump in dues-paying members. There are also signs that Trump’s election is making left-leaning voters in Germany more politically active.
Take, for instance, Kristina Seidler, a 28-year-old mother and Düsseldorf resident who works as a substantiality adviser for a textile company. She has voted for the SPD before. But the day after Trump’s victory, she signed up as a dues-paying member and party volunteer.
Horrified by Trump’s win, she said she sees the traditional left as the only answer and is preparing to put up posters and help with campaigning as the German election season rolls into high gear.
“What kind of sign is it for the world when a man who is a racist, who treats women so badly, can become the president of the United States?” Seidler said. “I thought, ‘It’s time for me to do something.’ ”
Perhaps the biggest single driver of the SPD’s new popularity, however, is Schulz.
The SPD is already part of Merkel’s governing “grand coalition,” with the party’s senior operatives filling top cabinet posts. Yet its popularity with its left-leaning base has been hampered by that power-sharing deal. Under its former chairman, Sigmar Gabriel — Merkel’s foreign minister — the SPD was struggling to distance itself from the current government.
Enter Schulz, who last month took over as the party’s chairman and candidate, positioning himself as an “outsider” who could mix things up in Berlin. A 61-year-old who never finished high school, Schulz has embraced his imperfections, openly speaking about his battle with alcoholism. He started in local politics, becoming the mayor of the western German town of Würselen before being elected to the European Parliament in 1994.
He rose through the ranks as a champion of European unity, civil rights and social justice, becoming the parliament’s president in 2012. He has at times been chided for his tell-it-like-it-is approach, drawing the wrath of the Hungarian and Polish governments after decrying democratic lapses in those countries.
Critics call Schulz similar to Trump in at least one regard: He is a straight talker who argues against elites and favors the common man. He is also blunt — a trait that contrasts with Merkel, a leader famous for her meandering, parsed answers.
“The way in which he conjures up the alleged division of society in a populist manner is along the lines of the post-factual methods of the U.S. election campaign,” Merkel’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, charged in Der Spiegel last week
In the dealmaking game that is coalition governments, Schulz may have several paths to the chancellery if his party can maintain its momentum. It will be difficult, analysts say, but Schulz’s rising popularity means it is no longer unthinkable that Merkel loses.
[Germany used to be migrants’ promised land. Now, it’s turning them back.]
Merkel’s open-door policy for refugees brought a barrage of criticism from the conservative wing of her party. And despite Merkel’s hesitance, Horst Seehofer, head of her sister party, the Christian Social Union, appears to be extending his hand to Trump, praising the new president’s “consistency” and “speed” in implementing his campaign promises.
A Merkel loss could mean a greater frost in German-U. S. relations, harking back to the days of Schröder’s cool relationship with President George W. Bush. Merkel, while hardly cozying up to Trump, has nevertheless avoided outright conflict. Analysts call that further evidence of her pragmatism and firm belief that Germany needs the United States, diplomatically and for collective defense.
“Going after Trump might be a smart strategy for winning elections but not for running a government,” said Jürgen Falter, a political scientist at Mainz University.
Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.
SchulzThe rise of Trump has led to an unexpected twist in Germany’s election: A resurgent left versus Merkel
The Revitalization of Democracy in Germany
The surprise news that former European Parliament president Martin Schulz will run against Angela Merkel to become Germany's next chancellor has rekindled interest in politics in the country. After two lackluster elections in 2009 and 2013, it also fosters new hope for a liberal democracy in crisis.
© A DER SPIEGEL Editorial by Dirk Kurbjuweit
February 16, 2017 04:21 PM Print FeedbackComment
Respirators provide emergency breathing assistance to patients running out of oxygen. Martin Schulz is currently playing the role of respirator for German politics. He is invigorating democracy, regenerating long-absent excitement for his party, the Social Democrats (SPD), and fueling hopes of a change in government. After 11 years, there is finally a realistic alternative to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who seems so tired and listless recently that it looks as though even she thinks it has been too long.
We are experiencing a shift. Germany is transitioning from a period of political demobilization to one of mobilization, and that is good news. Merkel never wanted the German people to become particularly active politically. Instead she sought to calm people, assuage their fears and lull them to sleep -- to deprive democracy of political oxygen in the form of debates, emotion and ideas. Voter turnout fell.
It was Merkel herself who put an end to this period of torpor with her refugee policies, and the mobilization period began. The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party quickly became a recepticle for fears, resentment and disappointment and the debate became more lively if, at times, unsavory. Suddenly, democracy was enlivened, as if awakened from a deep sleep - but most of the action was on the far right -- and liberal democracy fell into crisis.
Thanks to Schulz, Germany is now experiencing a shift within the shift. His candidacy is ushering in the second phase of mobilization, this time at the center of society and on the left wing. The enthusiasm he has sparked has long been missing. Schulz, of course, isn't particularly charismatic nor is he a bright beacon of light personifying the anti-establishment. On the contrary, he has played a significant role in the European Union, and in the German SPD party, for years. He's just as down to earth as Merkel -- more traditional than avant garde.
Merkel Seems Burned-Out
What differentiates him most from Merkel is his passion. Schulz has a true passion for Europe and he has always fought passionately on behalf of this challenging project. And it's a safe bet that he will also approach other projects with the same kind of passion. Merkel, on the other hand, who has always been reserved in her statements, appears burned out these days. She made two appearances to announce her 2017 chancellor candidacy - once on her own and one last week together with Horst Seehofer, the head of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union with which it shares power at the national level. Seehofer famously delayed his party's endorsement of Merkel's candidacy in protest over her refugee policees. And Merkel looked tired, even exhausted, during both announcements and had trouble making clear what she actually wants to do with a fourth term in office.
Given that voters should be able to expect a chancellor to show enthusiasm for her work, both appearances were a disgrace - also for democracy. Who wants to become politically active when even the German chancellor makes such uninspired appearances?
After more than 11 years on the job, Merkel is fatigued. Voters have also become tired.
After more than 11 years on the job, Merkel is fatigued. Voters have also become tired.
Schulz is also a gift to the Social Democrats because the party finally has a person in place who shows an unwavering desire to be in power. The party's chancellor candidates in the last two elections -- Frank-Walter Steinmeier (2009) and Peer Steinbrück (2013) -- all appeared for various reasons to be inhibited, hesitating and skeptical. Sigmar Gabriel, who recently stepped down as party chief and had initially planned to run as the SPD's chancellor candidate, exhibited the same characteristics. It didn't feel right and voters noticed.
Fresh and Hungry for the Job
Schulz, in contrast, appears to be as fresh as he is hungry for the job, and SPD voters seem to like him. When a candidate and a party can succeed in coming together like that, then it is a win-win situation for democracy - because it presents a real alternative.
So far, Schulz has been drumming up voter enthusiasm based entirely on his personality and has yet to offer any concrete political proposals. Ultimately, of course, that will have to change. There are, after all, two stages in the way people react to surprises like Schulz's candidacy: with emotion first, but then with questions, with rationality. Schulz is still enjoying the first stage, the more pleasant one. But once the cheering dies down, he will have to come forward with his plans for Germany - the refugee policies he will pursue, how he actually plans to achieve the fairness he has been touting and whether or not new laws are needed for domestic security in response to the risk of further terrorist attacks.
When he does, it's likely he will put some people off. Besides, in politics, contradictions, inconsistencies and affairs are always lurking somewhere around the corner. Schulz still has to demonstrate whether he is appropriate for the job.
Paradoxically, Merkel's hopes lie partially with Donald Trump. If his administration continues to stumble, or if things get even worse, then German voters may begin thinking that Merkel, with her steadfastness and experience, might be the better choice for chancellor after all. German life would continue to live with a limited supply of political oxygen.
At this juncture, however, it's not the ultimate winner that matters most. What counts right now is that, after two extremely lackluster election seasons, we are looking at the prospect of an exciting campaign. A democracy isn't just about results - it's also about how we get to them, the process. A good, passionate election campaign could help to free liberal democracy from its current state of crisis.