When former European parliament president Martin Schulz announced his candidature for the office of German chancellor and was elected leader of the German Social Democratic party (SPD) the polls momentarily shifted in his favour, the so called ‘Schulz bounce’. The SPD hit levels of popularity not experienced in its recent history. This led many commentators to ask whether he would be able to sustain this momentum by putting the demand for social justice back at the top of the election agenda.
Sadly, the ‘Schulz bounce’ has proved all too temporary and the SPD have now dropped back to around 24 per cent in the polls compared to 38 per cent for current chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), who is running for her fourth term in office. This week saw perhaps the principle chance for a ‘game changer’ ahead of the federal election on September 24 as the two chancellor candidates went head to head in the only TV debate of the campaign. The clash was held on September 3 and coming three weeks before the vote was regarded by many as Schulz’s final chance of winning over the 46 per cent of voters recent polls show haven’t yet made up their mind who to vote for.
Judging by national and international media reactions, however, the debate turned out to be a missed opportunity for Schulz to challenge Merkel’s “let’s keep things as they are” strategy. Most importantly, both of the contenders missed the opportunity to set the agenda in the TV clash – and thereby the chance of influencing public debate in the final run up to the election. As many commentators have pointed out, even though they were not actually prese nt, the topics typically associated with the right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD) took up a large share of the airtime. This works rather more to the detriment of Martin Schulz than to Angela Merkel: whereas her power mainly derives from being associated with stability and reacting rather than being proactive, his chance would have been to question precisely this strategy.
At the same time, it has to be acknowledged that this was not necessarily entirely his own fault, as the agenda setting power during the debate lied largely in the hands of the moderators. Yet, Schulz could – and should – have tried to direct the discussion more into the direction of traditional social democratic topics. While half of the debate was concerned with issues related to migration and refugees, only a couple of minutes were devoted to social justice, pensions, and unemployment reforms.
What the debate lacked was clear differences between the two candidates’ positions, which could have led to an actual exchange of arguments. To be fair, Martin Schulz did try and carve out opportunities to attack his rival’s policies more directly. He indicated that he would take a harder stance in Germany’s foreign policy towards Turkey, such as making clear that any prospects of Turkey accessing the European Union have been annihilated by its government’s political turn in recent years. Merkel, however, managed to take up the issue and express her commitment to solve the current diplomatic crisis with all “possible means”. Moreover, his criticism of Merkel’s decision to open the borders for incoming refugees in the summer of 2015 which sparked resistance on the part of several Eastern European neighbours was not entirely convincing, as Schulz himself is known for his broadly pro-migration attitude.
Generally, apart from a couple of minutes devoted to a recently introduced car tolling system, tax reforms, and internal security, debate centred mainly around foreign policy. This made it even more difficult for Martin Schulz to highlight major differences between the two parties’ programmes. The fact that throughout the lifetime of the outgoing government the German foreign office has been headed by SPD politicians – first Frank-Walter Steinmeier and now by Schulz’s predecessor as party leader, Sigmar Gabriel – made it all but impossible for Schulz to successfully put “clear red water” between his foreign policy outlook and that of Merkel.
Ultimately, this “missed opportunity” means that it remains uncertain who will win over those pivotal undecided voters. Many of these are disenchanted with the state of things as they are, but equally do not feel represented by the SPD candidate who could have been the voice of “the ordinary man.” Apart from a number of failed attempts to stir disagreement, what the TV debate’s series of nodding and vague declarations proved once again is that both of the candidates are – above all – pro-European moderates.