Merkel vs Schulz: Their strengths and weaknesses

It seems that Martin Schulz might be able to re-energised SPD, SocDems even beat CDU/CSU in one poll after a very long time.  What is his biggest advantage and the biggest weakness when facing Angela Merkel? And what is her biggest advantage and the biggest weakness when facing Schulz?

Chancellor Angela Merkel and SPD leader Martin Schulz. Credit:

Chancellor Angela Merkel and SPD leader Martin Schulz. Credit:

Eric Langenbacher, Teaching Professor, Department of Government , Georgetown University

The spike in the SPD’s polling numbers surprised almost everyone–including me. The fact that he is beating/tied with Merkel in a face-to-face matchup is also unexpected. But, as the Germans say, mal sehen (we’ll see). Hi biggest advantage is that he is a fresh face. Unlike the SPD ministers, he does not have domestic policies to live down. Yet, he has substantial political and policy experience, so no neophyte here. He is very similar to Schroeder in 1998 in these regards: sufficiently experienced, but unsullied and fresh. Merkel on the other hand has over a decade of top leadership experience, a solid record of responding to crises, and a strong enough economy. Also, one should never underestimate her ability to undermine rivals or simply to be the last, best woman standing. The Bundestag election will be about how much change/continuity German voters want.

Thorsten Benner, Director, Global Public Policy Institute

Schulz biggest strength is that he is a new face in Berlin who hasn´t been part of the Merkel government and who can credibly embody the agenda of social justice he is pushing with his party. His biggest challenge is to credibly claim that the SPD can end up with a majority independent of Merkel without being plagued by a discussion what a Red-Red-Green government with the Left party would really entail or whether he´d be willing to serve as second in command to Merkel in a renewed “grand coalition” should the SPD fall short of a viable alternative majority.

Merkel´s biggest strength is her claim to being an experienced, calm leader in difficult times. That´s also her biggest weakness is that she has been around for so long, that some have gotten bored with her (or outright antagonized by either her refugee policy or the constant fighting with the Bavarian sister party) and are ready for a fresh face.

Joyce Mushaben, Curators’ Professor of Comparative Politics  & Gender Policies, University of Missouri–St. Louis

Schulz will have a hard time the “energizing  the traditional base” of working class Germans, because the economy has been  performing very well since  Merkel assumed office. That economic boom kicked in AFTER  SPD  Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was forced OUT of office for adopting the kinds of labor market reforms (Hartz I- IV) that made it possible.

The SPD has supported all of the  citizenship/migration/ integration reforms, the energy turn-around, and even the  response to the Euro-crisis  upheld by Merkel. Indeed, these measures were adopted by Grand Coalitions, so Schulz has few  grounds for “attacking” Merkel’s policies outright.

The  national-populist or right-wing malcontents  who loudly reject Merkel’s policies involving the refugees would sooner  vote for the AfD or the CSU in Bavaria.  In essence the CDU and the SPD will both have to appeal to the center to keep the  far-right  from establishing  a foothold in the Bundestag.  Schulz cannot really play to the so-called “far left” because those people also overlap in some strange ways with  AfD supporters – a lot of Easterners who feel that “life has passed them by” – although most actually enjoy  higher living standards (and pensions) today, than they did  before unification.

Thus, the  only “advantage” that Schulz would have is that  he is “not Merkel,” if people are tired of her by now.  Hard to see how  he will “energize” younger voters  who have benefited from Merkel’s family policies,  internationalization of science/research/technology fields, who  embrace her courageous stance on refugees, etc. – even though  I  and many other EU experts know that she used a lot of EU directives as leverage for those policies.

People who MIGHT have  grown tired of Merkel are now  more likely to want to KEEP her,  given the election of  the crazy man (I call him Twittler) who has  seized control of the White House. Merkel has taken a strong stance against Putin, Merkel is going to be a tough negotiator  regarding the Brexit conditions, and Merkel is clearly the  smartest, most rational  person in the room when it comes to managing  one global crisis after another. Schulz has been out of the national picture  for years  — and  Germans appreciate  the continuity, stability , pragmatism and integrity that  she represents.

Florian Hartleb, Political Scientist, Consultant

Advantages for Schulz:
– Angela Merkel seems to be like Helmut Kohl 1997 (people are tired of her; lost support and reputation because of her refugee policy)
– Taking away her European saver image (Schulz has a lot of European experience)
– His own image (Ex-alcoholic, no high school degree) – socialdemocrat approach (equality of chances etc.), fighter
– fresh-wind-effect (Gabriel would have been without support)
– playing the populist logic very well
– media network behind him
– no part of the big coalition
– Schulz a much stronger candidate than Steinbrück and technocratic Steinmeier
– Merkel can hardly stand for a new project and vision
– candidate from outside: no big network within the party branches (not so deep in internal policies)
– choleric character and egomaniac (not as stable as Merkel), no big teamplayer
– past issues within the EU-system (protecting Juncker etc.)

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