“I’m not a magician,” Martin Schulz confessed candidly after the disastrous landslide of his party, the SPD, in the historic social democratic stronghold of Northern Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous federal state of Germany. Yet, at the time of his candidacy to the Chancellery, the media and opinion polls had predicted a real miracle: to revert the frantic struggle of the SPD, the historical German Social Democratic Party, into a winning offensive, assuring their survival after a relentless series of capsizes.
It had seemed a formidable yet possible challenge. But losing three regional elections in quick succession has interrupted Social Democrats’ dreams of revenge. Nor was it possible to hide behind the mistakes or shortcomings of the red-green coalition that ruled the Northern Rhine-Westphalia, no matter how severe they were. Or behind the insecurity aroused by the unexplained carnival of violence and sexual harassment in Cologne.
The trend is now clear and leads directly to the fall elections. Schulz promises to address them with a fighting air that so far has not been seen. At best, he’s made some reference to the centrality of “social justice,” but nothing to give the SPD a strong characterization.
This low profile, which should have helped to retain the votes of moderates at the regional elections, spilled into a complete disaster.
In short, it was not enough to replace the man at the top, the pale and moderate Sigmar Gabriel, with the hot blooded Schulz, whose long tenure in the European institutions absolved him from any direct responsibility in the unpopular policies of the SPD in Germany.
The manifest subordination of the Social Democrats to the CDU/CSU, the full adherence to the rules of liberal free trade, the “austere” review of the German Welfare cannot be erased with the magic wand of a timid leftist phraseology.
To appeal to a famous joke by Andreotti, the German case shows us unequivocally that “power wears out those who only hold half of it” — the weak half, of course, reticent, more blackmailed by its own fears than by the arrogance of others. In short, the SPD is caged in by the Grand Coalition and has been deprived for decades of its “own” speech.
At this moment, Angela Merkel does not seem to fear any real consistent opponent.
The armistice, no matter how precarious, on the minefield of immigration policies has allowed her to avoid a strong shift of the Christian Democrat political axis to the right that would have opened a space for the Social Democrats.
Alternative fuer Deutschland, the new nationalist and xenophobic party, has certainly got a good statement, but it hasn’t broken through: The “ceiling” that prevented the National Front from attaining a majority in France is very low and much more solid for the extreme German right.
Marine Le Pen’s setback in the French presidential elections has postponed the threat of a spreading anti-European nationalism to an uncertain future.
Macron, who Monday visited Berlin, presented himself as a reliable and preferred partner in his first international political meeting. With the Chancellor, he reaffirmed the Franco-German brand imprinted on the political engine of Europe.
Merkel can therefore claim her policies provide stability, in a climate that seems to have overcome all emergencies. Once again, as happened in the previous election campaign, her appeal to voters may be reduced to a simple statement: “You know me.” In a country that doesn’t invite risks and, least of all, adventures, known leaders have enormous power.
Of course, not everyone appreciates the existing state of things. This was proven by the growth in popularity of Linke, the leftist party that almost doubled its approval ratings, but was short a few votes and did not go into Duesseldorf parliament. But overall, the possibility of a leftist government to send the CDU/CSU into the opposition is becoming more evanescent.
Merkel continues to embody German stability. A balanced Europe is less of a given in the South and the East, but the fall is not far away.