Schulz embraces parish pump politics in German campaign

SPD challenger to Angela Merkel employs hands-on personal approach to election

Germany’s leader of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) Martin Schulz: he is being presented as someone who still lives in his small German home town and knows people’s problems.  Photograph: Jens Schlueter/EPA

Germany’s leader of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) Martin Schulz: he is being presented as someone who still lives in his small German home town and knows people’s problems. Photograph: Jens Schlueter/EPA

 

Germany’s Social Democrat (SPD) leader Martin Schulz has embraced the Irish parish pump in his bid to unseat chancellor Angela Merkel next month.

Lagging 15 points behind in polls, with a nagging feeling that Germany’s election race is over before it began, Schulz promised voters he met in a televised town hall meeting he would deal with their problems personally.

It’s a radical departure in Germany, where the location of public officials at state and municipal levels mean federal politicians rarely get involved in people’s daily problems. Not Martin Schulz.

The centre-left leader listens as 85-year-old pensioner Betty Neumann tells of how she struggles on €758 a month but dreams of the occasional theatre visit. “I’ll talk to a few people,” promises Schulz.

Dagmar Wilms (73) described how her street in Frankfurt is now a no-go area, dubbed “Arab Mile” for regular shootings and police raids. Schulz drew on his experience as former mayor of his small home town: “I’m a citizen like you . . . I know what it’s like when districts go downhill.”

In case anyone thought he was a soft touch, Schulz insisted he was a law-and-order candidate. He promised more resources to fight crime and sympathised with a police officer complaining about low pay. “I’m the son of a police officer,” he added, “I know the job you do.”

Clashing styles

After entering the race in February, Schulz’s early surge in support is long spent, and the SPD has landed with a bump back at 25 per cent in polls. Making little impact with their party programme, SPD strategists are determined to present their man as someone who still lives in his small German home town and knows people’s problems – far from Merkel in her high-security bubble in Berlin.

The 62-year-old SPD candidate is hoping his amenable, approachable style will contrast favourably when Merkel – who cultivates a caring but strict mutti (mummy) image – faces her own town hall meeting next Sunday.

As the Schulz programme wears on, one Merkel weak spot becomes apparent: the legacy of the 2015 refugee crisis, when almost one million people came into the country.

When a Berlin refugee volunteer complained about the lack of political support for their work, Schulz agreed his colleagues have let down these “everyday heroes”.

In a dig at Merkel’s notorious “we’ll manage this” refugee crisis refrain, Schulz said: “Someone stands there and is cheered for saying, ‘we’ll manage this’ but the others do the work.”

With a real chance that the asylum issue will come back on the agenda before polling day on September 24th, the contrast with Merkel was greatest on Sunday evening in a conversation between Schulz and 18-year-old Obdaidulla Sultani. The Afghan asylum seeker living in Bavaria has just finished school but is worried he won’t be allowed stay.

“I’ll get in touch with the Bavarian state premier,” promised Schulz.

Policy and principles

Two years ago, when confronted with a Lebanese teenager whose family faced deportation, Merkel said: “You’re a very likeable person but you know . . . some people have to go back.” The girl began weeping, Merkel struggled to comfort her and the clip went viral online.

The question is which approach German voters will reward on September 24th: parish pump political interventions for a good cause, or adhering to political policy and principles to keep the pitch level for all?

Will Schulz’s pitch – promising to intervene as the lenient, hands-on father – go down better with German voters than Merkel’s more non-committal, distant style?

“For most people here, sticking to the rules is more important than well-intended exceptions,” said Dr Gero Neugebauer, political scientist at the Free University, Berlin. “People here think: if you make an exception for one person, thousands of others will say, ‘But I have a problem too.’”

It remains to be seen if voters buy the Schulz everyman pitch, given his last 23 years spent in Brussels concluded as president of the European Parliament.

There he earned an estimated €320,000 annually – almost 10 times the German average wage and about €100,000 more than Dr Merkel.

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