The current ruinous infighting within Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) is playing out like a bad soap opera. Just days after it began tearing itself apart over its future leadership and ministerial appointments in the proposed new grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s conservatives, the country’s oldest party has seen its popularity plummet to new lows.
Even the neutral observer must be shocked at how a party that has played such an important, corrective and stabilizing role in politics from the German Empire and Weimar Republic to today’s Federal Republic is nosediving. When the grassroots members of the party vote on whether they approve of the coalition agreement between the two sides in early March, they must recognize this from their history lessons and see it as their great responsibility to support it.
Voting against the deal would only make sense if the prospect of imminent new elections could be expected to lead to a regeneration and reform of fossilized party structures. But this is not the case. The anti-deal bluster of the SPD youth league is a bluff, and those members of the party leadership who are still undamaged represent the status quo. There is not the slightest sign of any inspiring new leaders on the horizon.
What the SPD lacks most of all these days is humility.
German social democracy is threatened with the fate of its parallel movements throughout Europe, a fate that could see it fall into insignificance with a voting share below 10 percent.
The right wing of the party is breaking away in the direction of nationalism, including so many trade unionists that even Daimler boss Dieter Zetsche is concerned. The other faction relies on a left-tinged nationalist populism similar to that of British left-winger and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, and leftist former French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. It is even hurriedly trying to sign up new SPD members so they can influence the coalition deal vote. So, should Social Democrats try the Jeremy Corbyn/Bernie Sanders approach and head left?
Such a move would only be successful if it meant not only a revision of Germany’s welfare and unemployment laws plus the usual triad of education, pensions and raising the minimum wage, but also a political initiative that actually focuses on the interests of the under-35s, that is, the end of precarious working conditions, the reconciliation of family and work, and affordable housing. None of this can be achieved in the proposed alliance with Ms. Merkel, but in order to be able to credibly develop and communicate such a program, the SPD needs a respite period, which, ironically, the grand coalition could offer.
This could be an opportunity provided discipline and solidarity, and even the enjoyment of making policy, return to the party. It would be wise to propose the party’s candidates for ministerial positions before members vote on the coalition deal on March 3-4 so they can be voted on. This is important as last week, then-leader Martin Schulz had to publicly forego the position of foreign minister due to lack of support in his own party.
The SPD is badly in need of structural reform, starting at its party headquarters. It is also crying out for a new beginning, ideally with the momentum coming from new members who, hopefully, see themselves as more than nay-sayers. A new party doctrine is also a must, even if the will really exists to get rid of old customs and practices. But what the SPD lacks most of all these days is humility, or at least some recognition of its previous overconfidence and overestimation of itself.
I recalled the historic role of the SPD above, and I want to underline this point once again, as the party stews in its own juices. Its role is not measured by the sensitivities of its vain leadership, but by the current situation in Europe, which it would not be alarmist to compare to the situation in Germany during the Weimar Republic of the early 1930s. The right wing is on the move, including in eastern Germany, where all the state parliaments could fall to the far-right Alternative for Germany party in the next two years. Leaders such as Ms. Merkel are weakened, and the European Union, lacking leadership, is being left to slip into crisis. We are like sleepwalkers.
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