Merkel Whips Party Into Action as Rival Schulz Turns Up the Heat

  • Chancellor needs to revive CDU shaken by SPD surge in polls
  • Schulz is pro-EU and vocally anti-Trump in a message of change

Surrounded by beer drinkers and tuba music, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the man who wants to topple her from power swung into campaign mode on opposite sides of the country.

Ash Wednesday is a time in German politics when the gloves come off and candidates ramp up their rhetoric. With September elections looming, Merkel hit her homeland with a combative message to fellow Christian Democratic Union members jolted by the rise of her rival, Social Democrat Martin Schulz.

“We’ll fight, fight to make our ideas clear, to make clear what’s important to us,” Merkel told some 1,000 people seated on benches as a brass band played on stage in Demmin, a town of no more than 12,000 near the Baltic coast.

“We have to say what has to be improved -- and then we have to go on and do it, to show that we can shape things, that we can build, that we can act -- and that we can be successful,” she urged.

She also took a dig at Schulz and his party for being backward-looking and not standing by a labor-market overhaul pushed through under SPD’s Gerhard Schroeder in the last decade. Those reforms, which alienated huge numbers of Social Democrats even though they’re credited with reducing German unemployment, still occupy the party to this day, she said.

“We Christian Democrats are looking out for our future in Germany – that’s our task,” she said. “The others are focused on the past.”

Time for Martin?

In a competing rally in his home state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Schulz was greeted by party members sitting at beer benches, waving signs that said “Time for Martin.” He’s a fresh face to Germans, even after a decades-long career in European Union politics in Brussels, and promises change after more than a decade of Merkel.

As the former European parliament president he is an unapologetic Europhile, a vocal critic of Brexit and of U.S. President Donald Trump.

“There will be no bashing with me, no badmouthing the EU, ” he told a crowd in Schwerte, a town of almost 50,000 people in the western industrial heartland. “I’m a German postwar child. I can say that I was able not to experience a war and I want it to stay that way.”

The emergence of Schulz as a viable alternative has been a wake-up call to Merkel’s party as he has narrowed or closed the gap in most polls. The SPD held at 31 percent -- a 10-point jump since the beginning of the year -- while the CDU slid a point to 33 percent, according to a weekly Forsa survey published Wednesday.

After the spate of recent political surprises, Schulz promises more.

“You said we went to bed and woke up with Brexit; we went to bed and woke up with Trump,” Schulz, a teetotaller, told party members earlier in a beer tent in the Bavarian town of Vilshofen. On Sept. 23, on the eve of election day, “we’re going to go to bed and wake up with the election victory of the SPD.”

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