It’s been a veritable political roller coaster ride. On Wednesday, the Social Democrat’s (SPD) leader Martin Schulz looked like a winner after successfully negotiating with and getting Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), to agree to numerous concessions. At it stands, the SPD will be in charge of the Labour and Finance Ministries if a coalition government is formed. And Schulz himself had looked set to become Germany’s next foreign minister. But now, the former European Parliament president is suddenly on the outside looking in. He will step down as SPD leader, and now he no longer wants to become foreign minister, either. So what happened?
Martin Schulz has dragged his party through a number of political u-turns and strategic blunders. His latest gamble — seeking to retain some political capital by stepping down as SPD leader but aiming to becoming Germany’s foreign minster — has failed. The ambitious former SPD leader and incumbent foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, very much intends to keep his position in the next government.
When friends become foes
In a recent interview, Gabriel expressed anger and contempt at the political ploy by Schulz — a man whom he once considered a friend. “This morning, my little daughter Marie told me: ‘Daddy, don’t be sad, now you’ll have more time for us. That’s better than spending time with the man with the hairy face,'” he said, his daughter referring to the bearded Schulz.
The media ran with that quote, and it became a major talking point in the German capital, Berlin. Gabriel expressed his scorn by quoting his own daughter — making politics looks like a cheap, amateurish play. It’s a quote that sheds light on the inner workings of the SPD. It tarnishes the party’s reputation and paints a bad picture of Germany’s political scene in general.
It was also a blow that Schulz could not recover from. And now, humiliated, he has declared he does not, after all, want to serve as Germany’s next foreign minister. Schulz is hoping that stepping aside will finally lay to rest the wrangling within the SPD over who will get a minister post. He is hoping his fellow party members will now agree to the coalition deal with the CDU/CSU. The vote represents a big hurdle that needs to be overcome before a new government can be formed. Schulz’ decision not to serve in a future Cabinet may temporarily restore peace in his party. But nobody knows for sure whether SPD members will actually approve the coalition agreement. The move to begin formal coalition talks was only narrowly approved at a party conference last month.
Merkel may face uncertain future
Schulz no longer has the full backing of his party. The winds have changed. Just one year ago, he was unanimously elected SPD leader. Now, the party seems to have turned its back on him. The SPD’s remaining leaders must somehow regain the support of its members. It’s a formidable challenge. And it remains to be seen whether this can actually be done by March 4, the day when Social Democrats vote to either approve or in fact reject the coalition deal. If they say “no,” the SPD will find itself in a quagmire, as will Angela Merkel.