Merkel's Challenger Rules Out Trump-Style Campaign in Germany

  • SPD’s Schulz wins 100% party backing; 6-month campaign ahead
  • Berlin convention gives boost to his chancellorship ambitions

Angela Merkel’s Social Democratic challenger said he’ll shun campaign tactics associated with U.S. President Donald Trump and defend a fragile Europe as he won his party’s backing to take on the German chancellor in September elections.

Martin Schulz, a former European Parliament president, made the pledges in a speech before Social Democratic delegates in Berlin elected him party head with a record tally of 100 percent, followed by a show of hands backing his candidacy. The convention on Sunday, punctuated by cheers and standing ovations, sends Schulz onto the campaign trail with early momentum that’s lifted his party into a statistical tie with Merkel’s Christian Democrat-led bloc in national polls.

Much of Schulz’s speech signaled that the Sept. 24 election in Europe’s biggest economy will be fought at the political center. While emphasizing tradition-steeped campaign themes from bridging income gaps to boosting public investment, he also backed Merkel’s open-borders refugee policy and pledged to avoid personal attacks during the campaign.

Martin Schulz

Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

“If there’s one lesson from Donald Trump’s election campaign, it’s that contempt, working with fake news and blanket condemnation of entire groups of people have no place in Germany,” Schulz, 61, said to applause from the roughly 600 delegates. “You won’t see me engaging in the vilification of political competitors.”

Combining the role of candidate and chairman is seen as a hedge against bickering among the party’s factions, potentially clearing the way for Schulz to focus on campaign themes beyond appealing to the SPD’s base and voters left behind in Germany’s booming economy. The SPD, the second-biggest party during Merkel’s almost 12 years in office, will present its platform in June.

Personality Contest

Schulz, who once was a small-town mayor in western Germany, is the first SPD challenger of the Merkel era who hasn’t previously served in her cabinet, giving him the distance to present himself as the face of change. By energizing the party, he’s mounting the most serious challenge to Merkel since Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder left office in 2005.

Even so, Merkel would win a contest with Schulz by 46 percent to 38 percent if Germans elected the chancellor directly, according to an Emnid poll for Bild am Sonntag newspaper. That compares with 46 percent for Schulz and 40 percent for Merkel in early February.

While offering few policy specifics, Schulz has reopened a debate within the SPD about the merits of Agenda 2010, an economic overhaul pushed through by Schroeder more than a decade ago that eased labor-market restrictions and trimmed social programs. In a nod to critics on the left, Schulz is proposing to expand benefits for jobless who agree to retraining.

Support for the SPD declined one percentage point to 32 percent while Merkel’s bloc held at 33 percent, according to the weekly Emnid poll of 1,832 people. The Greens rose 1 point to 8 percent, the Free Democrats declined 1 point to 5 percent, the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany rose 1 point to 9 percent and the Left held at 8 percent.

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