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What Jacinda Ardern's fans can learn from Schulzomania

Martin Schulz and Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Getty Images

Ardern fans hoping rock-star hype will propel her to power may find a pointer in Germany. 

When the German mainstream media write about New Zealand, it’s usually something quirky. For example, recent headlines focused on three daring wild rabbits that rode to safety on the backs of sheep during an Otago flood (yes, there are pictures).

More recently, it was something of a surprise to read in German about the new leader of the New Zealand Labour Party and whether she was going to have children. “It only took a few hours before it was all about her uterus,” one Berlin daily reported derisively. Yes, indeed, Jacindamania had reached central Europe.

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Maybe that’s not surprising. After all, Jacinda Ardern, leader of New Zealand’s version of the Social Democrats, one of Germany’s two main parties, is the latest in a growing line of “rock-star politicians”. That is, parliamentarians blessed with wit, good looks, charm and charisma, touting messages of positivity and social justice, sanctioned with just a light sprinkling of the right kind of populism.

It is why the likes of French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Italian Alessandro Di Battista of the Five Star Movement and British Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn are often greeted by the kind of adulation normally reserved for boy bands and Hollywood starlets.

Could New Zealand learn anything about Ardern’s chances in September based on the road Europe’s rock-star politicians have travelled before her?

Maybe – although, admittedly, Macron and Di Battista are not good comparisons, their electoral situations being very different. Corbyn might be a bit closer. Despite the age difference, both he and Ardern appeal to younger voters and the politically apathetic.

There’s been a lot of talk about Labour in New Zealand harnessing the same kind of “youthquake” that Corbyn supposedly has. But the truth is that Labour gained a lot of support in the UK’s snap election thanks to voters’ antipathy to Brexit, so that doesn’t help Ardern much.

Curiously, the clearest political parallel might be in Berlin. More than five months ago, Germany’s Social Democrats chose an unexpected new leader, Martin Schulz, a former European Parliament President, to go up against Chancellor Angela Merkel in September 24 elections.

The choice was greeted with very un-German enthusiasm. It would result, news magazine Der Spiegel gushed, in the “revitalisation of democracy in Germany”. As local media vied to explain the “Schulz effect”, “Schulzomania” and “Saint Martin”, a boring election started to look exciting.

The Social Democrats polled 10% higher and gained more members than they had in two decades. One week into Schulz’s candidacy, Germans were picking a 61-year-old with no local political experience over Merkel as leader.

Unfortunately for Ardern-istas, this tale has an unhappy ending. The Schulz effect has failed to deliver: poll numbers keep falling and Schulz’s “fresh face” has not been able to compete with Merkel’s perennial promise of security and stability.

Nobody seems to know exactly why, although it could be that ordinary folk realised a fresh face does not necessarily fresh policies make. Lurking behind Schulz are the same old Social Democrats, unable to escape a centrist trap they built as coalition partners years ago.

The cleverest rock-star politicians can all credit at least part of their success to one thing: the voters’ desire for change, any change. Part of Schulz’s immediate appeal was that he was an alternative to Merkel, when there hadn’t been any other realistic choice for years.

So, yes, Jacindamania, meet Schulzomania – you guys have a lot to talk about.

This article was first published in the August 26, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.