Social Democrats eye comeback to deny Merkel

Mr Martin Schulz, Social Democratic Party (SPD) chairman and candidate for chancellor, at the party's conference in Dortmund, Germany, yesterday. Mr Schulz said his election manifesto will focus on free education, reducing the tax burden on low- and
Mr Martin Schulz, Social Democratic Party (SPD) chairman and candidate for chancellor, at the party's conference in Dortmund, Germany, yesterday. Mr Schulz said his election manifesto will focus on free education, reducing the tax burden on low- and middle-income Germans, investing in infrastructure and fostering a united Europe.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Leader rallies party though chances of beating German Chancellor in Sept 24 polls look slim

DORTMUND (Germany) • With the Social Democrats (SPD) slumping in the polls, its leader yesterday called on the party to take on Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany's September election on a programme of investment, social justice and a stronger Europe.

The chances of denying Dr Merkel a fourth term look slim for the SPD, which is the junior partner in her right-left coalition.

But some are hoping for a resurgence like that staged by Britain's Labour Party under Mr Jeremy Corbyn in a vote earlier this month.

The centre-left SPD has squandered gains of around 10 points made soon after Mr Martin Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament, was nominated party leader in late January.

An Emnid institute poll yesterday showed Dr Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) widening their lead to 15 points ahead of the Sept 24 election.

Mr Schulz, addressing party members gathered to agree on the election manifesto, focused on free education, reducing the tax burden on low- and middle-income Germans, investing in infrastructure and fostering a united Europe.

"We are living in a time of upheaval. Now Europe must be founded again," said Mr Schulz, stressing the importance of human rights, disarmament and investing in digital infrastructure.

DON'T GIVE UP ON EUROPE

We are living in a time of upheaval. Now Europe must be founded again.

SOCIAL DEMOCRATIC PARTY LEADER MARTIN SCHULZ

"That is the task for Europe, the task for the SPD," he said in a combative, 80-minute speech to about 600 delegates and 5,000 guests.

"I have fought for these ideas through my life. It is worth going onto the streets for these ideas, to make sure the next government is a Social Democratic one which will make them a reality," he said to applause.

Mr Schulz rejected big increases in defence spending, in particular on weapons.

He also accused Dr Merkel of failing to stand up against US President Donald Trump, and sharply criticised Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, saying he should release jailed journalists.

The party leader laid down gay marriage as a condition for any future government coalition involving the SPD. "I will sign no coalition deal in which marriage for all is not inscribed," he said.

The SPD's call for gay marriage comes just a week after the Greens set a similar condition, while Dr Merkel's Christian Democrats have so far refused to allow same gender couples to wed.

The SPD has lost confidence after losing power in two state elections and failing to win in a third this year. To have any chance of winning in September, it needs to mobilise traditional supporters, who have either not voted or shifted allegiance in the past few years.

As the number of refugees arriving in Germany has fallen sharply, many voters have forgiven Dr Merkel for her open-door migrant policy and see her as a safe pair of hands, especially on the international stage.

Earlier yesterday, former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the last Social Democrat to lead Germany, told delegates the party could still win, reminding them of the SPD's fightback in the 2005 election - the last one he fought.

"This is our chance. If we mobilise all our forces in the next few weeks, we can succeed in making the SPD the biggest party," he said to loud cheers.

Mr Schroeder said the SPD made up more than 20 points in the polls in a few weeks in 2005 and ended up only one percentage point short of Dr Merkel's conservatives.

"Nothing has been decided yet," said Mr Schroeder, 73, who was chancellor from 1998 to 2005.

A third of voters make up their minds on election day or shortly before, he added, calling for party members to fight for their cause with passion.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2017, with the headline 'Social Democrats eye comeback to deny Merkel'. Print Edition | Subscribe