Chancellor Battle

Social Democrats Still Seeking an Identity

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The Social Democrats are meant to provide a proper challenge to chancellor Angela Merkel, but often focus too much on infighting.

  • Facts


    • In addition to serving as chairman of the Social Democratic Party, Sigmar Gabriel is Germany’s vice-chancellor and economics minister.
    • He will step down as party chairman and take up the post of foreign minister, once Frank-Walter Steinmeier vacates the role to become German president.
    • Martin Schultz will lead the party and will run against Angela Merkel for chancellor at September’s general election.
  • Audio


  • Pdf
German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel arrives for a cabinet meeting at the German government guesthouse Meseberg Palace, in Meseberg, Germany May 24, 2016. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke
Sigmar Gabriel will move into the foreign office and not challenge Merkel. Source: Reuters [M]

Germany’s center-left Social Democratic Party is known for unerringly bringing down its own people and not its political adversaries.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Peer Steinbrück suffered this bitter experience in the last two parliamentary elections, when their campaigns were harmed by ongoing attacks from within their own ranks. As a result, the party put in its worst performances in the post-war era.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s 15th chairman, didn’t want the pattern to repeat itself. He pulled the plug even before his own campaign could begin. In interviews with German magazine Stern and newsweekly Die Zeit, Mr. Gabriel announced that he was not running for the chancellorship, and explained why he was stepping down as party chairman.

Unconditional loyalty to the party chairman is not an Social Democratic Party strength.

He blames his decision primarily on the lack of support from his party.

In a cynical analysis, he said “Quite a few are still at odds with me today because I once convinced more than 75 percent of SPD members that the SPD has to govern if it hopes to achieve the minimum wage, create more daycare opportunities, build more subsidized housing and, finally, accomplish greater equality for women.”

To successfully lead an election campaign, he added, the party must believe in the candidate and rally behind him, but in his case this was “not true to the extent necessary.”

Mr. Gabriel’s sentences read as if he were settling accounts with all critics within his own party, who blame the current low approval ratings on the fact that they are part of a grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats.

How hurt and disappointed must Mr. Gabriel be to publicly take up such a position against his own party? After this sudden withdrawal, it is hard to imagine that Mr. Gabriel, who will take on the role of foreign minister, once incumbent Frank-Walter Steinmeier becomes president, still wants to play a key role for the Social Democrats.

Objectively speaking, Mr. Gabriel has not managed to pull the Social Democrats out of the 25-percent ghetto. His program for the “working center” was the right approach, a policy for skilled workers, top performers and up-and-comers, embedded in an environmental and social market economy.

25 p5 Merkels Challengers-01

He was effective as economics minister, and he advanced the shift toward green energy known as the Energiewende and brought the CETA free trade agreement to a satisfactory conclusion. The introduction of the minimum wage and the women’s quota, as well as pension reforms, also bear Mr. Gabriel’s handwriting.

But he received little real appreciation for his accomplishments. His party did not even thank its chairman for pushing Mr. Steinmeier to be the next German president, against Ms. Merkel’s wishes. If Ms. Merkel had achieved such a coup, she could have relied on broad support from her party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union,

But unconditional loyalty to the party chairman is not an SPD strength. Ever since the former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder pushed through the set of welfare reforms known as the Hartz laws, there have been deep rifts within the party, and it is now searching for a new DNA. It is almost a small miracle in itself that Mr. Gabriel managed to lead the party for more than six years in this phase.

Martin Schulz is now expected to achieve an even bigger miracle, a success in the federal election. The man may be more popular at the moment with Social Democrats and voters than Mr. Gabriel, but his candidacy for the chancellorship cannot be taken for granted. Mr. Schulz has been a member of the European Parliament since 1994 and was its chairman most recently. For many Germans, he represents the Europe from which more and more people are turning away, a Europe of bureaucrats that has been unable to cope with high unemployment or the consequences of the refugee crisis.

As party chairman, Mr. Schulz could very well provide the Social Democrats with the peace of mind they desire, but that doesn’t make him a sure-fire success in the election.


Sven Afhüppe is the editor in chief of Handelsblatt. To contact the author:

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!