Rise of Donald Trump inspires resurgent left in Germany as election takes unexpected twist

Social Democrats bounce back under charismatic leader Martin Schulz

Anthony Faiola
Friday 17 February 2017 08:20 GMT
Martin Schulz last month in Strasbourg, France, before stepping down as president of the European Parliament
Martin Schulz last month in Strasbourg, France, before stepping down as president of the European Parliament (Patrick Seeger/European Pressphoto Agency)

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 centre 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.

“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 US 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 centre-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 politicised 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 - criticising, for instance, his refugee ban. But Schulz has also accused Merkel of being too diplomatic.

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 favours 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 US election campaign,” Merkel’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, charged in Der Spiegel last week

In the deal-making 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.

A Merkel loss could mean a greater frost in German-US relations, harking back to the days of Schröder’s cool relationship with President George W. Bush. Merkel, while hardly cosying 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 defence.

“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.

The Washington Post

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