Merkel's Social Democrat rival gaining support

Mr Schulz acknowledging his victory after becoming the SPD leader on Sunday. He supports free education, more investment in nursing care and schools, and qualification programmes for the unemployed.
Mr Schulz acknowledging his victory after becoming the SPD leader on Sunday. He supports free education, more investment in nursing care and schools, and qualification programmes for the unemployed.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Schulz wins 100% of votes in party meeting and will challenge German leader in Sept polls

BERLIN • Even in Germany, where consensus is highly valued, it had never happened before.

Mr Martin Schulz was on Sunday anointed leader of Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) - Europe's oldest democratic party - with 100 per cent of votes at a special convention.

That places Mr Schulz, 61, a former president of the European Parliament, in pole position to unseat the world's most powerful woman, Chancellor Angela Merkel, when the two face off on Sept 24 in the national election.

Opinion polls have recorded a 10-point jump for the SPD in recent weeks, with some placing it ahead of the conservative bloc behind Dr Merkel, who is hoping to win a fourth term in office.

Currently, Dr Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and SPD govern in a coalition led by Dr Merkel's conservatives, a partnership that looks likely to grow testy.

Mr Schulz's unique life history - he wanted to be a professional footballer, did not finish high school, beat alcoholism before opening a bookstore, and taught himself five languages - gives him a common touch. He has faced attacks from conservatives that he has adopted a "populist" tone but he dismisses the charges as elitism.

A COMMON TOUCH

I speak in a way so you can tell me apart from my rivals, and I try to make complex ideas understandable for my audience.

MR MARTIN SCHULZ, leader of Germany's Social Democrats, referring to attacks from conservatives that he has adopted a "populist" tone. He has dismissed the charges as elitism.

"I speak in a way so you can tell me apart from my rivals, and I try to make complex ideas understandable for my audience," he insists.

Addressing the SPD rank and file, he reiterated his calls for free education, more investment in nursing care and schools, as well as qualification programmes for the unemployed, in a speech that earned him a standing ovation.

It is necessary to close the "intolerable pay gap" so men and women in both eastern and western Germany get the same amount of pay for doing the same work, Mr Schulz said. He also said he wanted to introduce special working hours - financially supported by the government - for those with families.

"My intention to pursue policies that make the lives of hard-working people a little better is apparently finding a lot of support."

But the rallying cries in Mr Schulz's address to the convention also seemed destined to irk a US administration that is already demanding more defence spending from its Nato allies. Mr Schulz railed against buying more weapons and argued that even Mr Trump should hold to democratic values.

Anyone who tries to curb the freedom of the media, he said, "is laying an axe on the roots of democracy, whether he is the president of the US or a protester at a rally of Pegida". Pegida is the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant movement in Germany.

Mr Schulz was nominated as the new SPD leader only in late January and has been embraced by the centre-left with an elan not seen in years.

More than 13,000 people have joined the Social Democrats in recent weeks - a fact celebrated by party leaders even though membership last year, at around 438,000, was 130,000 fewer than a decade earlier.

NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2017, with the headline 'Merkel's Social Democrat rival gaining support'. Print Edition | Subscribe