It’s not hard to feel sorry for Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) these days. Beleaguered and under attack on several fronts, they’re languishing in the polls and the hype that greeted their chancellor candidate, Martin Schulz, when he laid out his vision for the party, has all but evaporated.
Enter Sigmar Gabriel. Germany’s foreign minister and former SPD party leader appears to have channeled his frustration and disappointment over ceding power to Schulz and turned that to his advantage by putting his stamp on the country’s foreign policy course.
A case in point is his handling of the current spat between Germany and Turkey. His blunt and outspoken comments criticizing Turkey for the imprisonment of a German human rights activist may have taken some observers by surprise, but judging by recent surveys they accurately reflected public opinion. In one poll 76 percent of those surveyed said the German government – read Angela Merkel – was not doing enough to defend itself against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Can Gabriel take advantage?
The question is whether Gabriel and the SPD can take advantage of Angela Merkel’s perceived reticence to speak out on the matter. “It is definitely the case that she’s reluctant to do anything and other people are acting on her behalf,” says Carsten Koschmieder, research assistant on German political parties at Berlin’s Freie Universität, but adds that it is customary for the chancellor to let her foreign minister act in accordance with the government’s agenda.
Not surprisingly, Niels Annen, the SPD’s foreign policy spokesman, says that the issue goes beyond electoral maneuvering. “Believe it or not but I don’t think that it has really anything to do with the electoral campaign,” he told DW. “If you look at the SPD’s policies toward Turkey, they have been very patient. And we always made it clear that this is not an ordinary country for us. So we have the highest interest in keeping Turkey on the European track.” The channel for dialogue with Erdogan is always open, he says, “but if that’s not the case, then Germany needs to pursue a new policy toward the country and public opinion would seem to back [Gabriel] up.”
Gabriel would not be Gabriel if he didn’t seek to use his hard-line Turkey stance to improve the SPD’s fortunes ahead of the September election. While public opinion may currently be behind him, it can also be extremely fickle when it comes to actually turning that support into tangible votes at the polls. “There’s no real difference between the parties, so someone who wants to vote for the Christian Democrats (CDU), if the issue is important to him, might think, well, the CDU is hard on Turkey too,” Koschmieder told DW.
That said, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that there is more to Gabriel’s move than meets the eye and that he’s trying to outscore the chancellor on the issue. “That’s your job as a journalist to observe and analyze,” says Annen, but he does concede that “when [current President] Frank-Walter Steinmeier was foreign minister we had some disagreements between the chancellor and the SPD, not so much on the core question of how to deal with the day-to-day politics… [but] I still believe that the chancellor could have sent a stronger message to the [Turkish] democratic opposition in the country. But in general terms, nobody really wants to bring Turkey into the center of an election campaign because it is an important country for us.”
The SPD’s savior?
Crucially, and much to the SPD’s chagrin, foreign policy issues generally do not generate feverish excitement among German voters. “European-Turkey ties, or German-Turkish relations are not one of the most important topics. And you can see that in the opinion polls. Right now in Germany a lot of topics are mentioned, but Turkey is not one of them. If people are asked about Turkish relations, or the approach the government should take on Turkey, then they have a clear opinion. But if you ask them – without mentioning Turkey – what are the most pressing problems that politicians should tackle, Turkey is just not mentioned,” says Koschmieder.
So if it really comes down to social inequality, pensions and the economy, can Gabriel position himself as the SPD’s savior if – as is widely predicted – Martin Schulz and the SPD suffer a heavy defeat in the election? “I get the impression that he at least thinks he could do that, and that he would be the right person to do that job,” says Koschmieder. “He’s a very good politician, he has talent, he’s an instinctive politician – and not as bad as he appeared to be last year. Sometimes it seems that he has forgotten that he’s not the party leader when he speaks about some things or makes certain decisions or crosses the line when it comes to Martin Schulz.”
Annen, on the other hand, says Gabriel has no need to remind people that he has a pivotal role to play in German politics and that there is a clear division of tasks between Gabriel and Schulz. “Martin Schulz is the chairman of the party and he will be the one taking the important decisions during the election campaign and after the election campaign. That decision was confirmed by a unanimous vote at our party convention.”
“So don’t get me wrong. But this is an obsession of some journalists who believe that everything that Schulz or Gabriel is doing has some tactical or inner-party power struggle aspect. I can assure you this is not the case.”
A diplomatic answer and one to be expected. Nevertheless, the run-up to and the election aftermath could make or break the current SPD leadership.