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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Martin Schulz, luckless challenger 'shadowboxing' Merkel

He has overcome injury and alcoholism but he cannot shake off his image as a Euro-bureaucrat

A victory sign in the Gendarmenmarkt Square in Berlin on September 22, 2017 from Martin Schulz, leader of the Social Democrat Party (SPD) and candidate for chancellor of Germany. But with incumbent Angela Merkel far ahead in the polls, that is likely to be as close to victory as he gets. John MacDougall / AFP
A victory sign in the Gendarmenmarkt Square in Berlin on September 22, 2017 from Martin Schulz, leader of the Social Democrat Party (SPD) and candidate for chancellor of Germany. But with incumbent Angela Merkel far ahead in the polls, that is likely to be as close to victory as he gets. John MacDougall / AFP

A high school dropout who grafted his way into the EU corridors of power, Germany's Martin Schulz is used to battling the odds. But taking on Angela Merkel may be his most unenviable challenge yet.

When the bearded 61-year-old announced in January he was giving up his role as European Parliament chief to become the Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader and its candidate for chancellor, he was welcomed home with open arms.

The so-called "Schulz-effect" saw the Social Democrats surge in the polls, and a YouTube song captured the enthusiasm with the lyrics: "The Schulz train is rolling, and it has no brakes, it's running at full steam to the chancellery."

But the train soon ran out of steam.

In what by many accounts has been a soporific campaign, Mr Schulz has struggled to maintain momentum while Ms Merkel, by doing very little, is seen more than ever as a reliable pair of hands in an uncertain world.

The latest survey by pollster Emnid found that 46 per cent of Germans would vote for Merkel if the chancellor were elected directly, compared with 28 per cent for Schulz. Berlin's Tagesspiegel newspaper dubbed him "the shadow-boxer" because of his frustrated attempts to spar with Europe's most powerful woman.

— 'Personal catastrophes' —

Mr Schulz has tried hard to shed his image as a European bureaucrat and play up his compelling life story of triumph over adversity.

He left high school without graduating with dreams of playing professional footballer only for them to be dashed by a knee injury. Barely in his twenties, he began drinking heavily but overcame his addiction and speaks openly about it.

Seizing what he has called a second chance in life, he opened a bookshop.he entered politics young and was elected mayor of the western town of Wuerselen at 31 — the youngest-ever official to hold such a post in the populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia. He served for 11 years.

In 1994, he was elected to the European Parliament and stayed in Brussels for the next two decades, rising to become president of the EU's only elected body in 2012 and teaching himself five languages along the way.

He says his past struggles have shaped the man he is today, telling one interviewer, "I believe I'm the only senior politician in Germany to openly admit my personal catastrophes. Some people have a problem with that. But others say: he fought his way out of that mess. He's not as polished as other politicians."

While some accuse him of being precisely the kind of Brussels insider voters distrust, the staunchly pro-European Schulz says his connections make him a heavyweight on the global stage because, "When you have been in Europe as long as I have, you know every Tom, Dick and Harry."

He has been married for more than 30 years to Inge, a landscape architect who studiously avoids the limelight, and they have a grown-up son and daughter.

— 'Accepted defeat'? —

Commentators say Mr Schulz's slide in the polls is partly due to bad luck. His SPD party lost three consecutive state elections to Merkel's CDU this year, mainly on regional issues,but the results nevertheless raised doubts about Mr Schulz's chances against the chancellor.

"Martin Schulz is farther away from victory than ever before," said the influential magazine, Der Spiegel, labelling the veteran politician a "Pechmagnet" - a bad luck magnet.

But observers say he has also made mistakes. With a buoyant economy employment at a record high, his campaign calls for a fairer, more equal Germany have failed to impress. Criticising Ms Merkel's refugee policy has not worked either since the SPD, as the junior coalition partner, cannot credibly claim to have opposed it at the height of the crisis.

He has also been accused of throwing in the towel too soon by already stating that he plans to stand for re-election as SPD leader even if he loses the election. As the Tagesspiegel put it, "Who is going to go out and fight for a candidate who seems to have accepted defeat?"