This weekend, Sigmar Gabriel became the longest-reigning chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) since former chancellor Willy Brandt, who led the left-leaning party in the 1970s. This is a feat that demands a certain amount of respect as no political party has changed its leadership as often as the SPD, now the junior partner in Germany’s ruling coalition government.
Between 2004 and 2009, for example, the party saw five leaders come and go. With five years and ten days in office, Mr. Gabriel now passes the tenureship of Gerhard Schröder, the last chancellor.
Yet there is little reason to celebrate. Although Mr. Gabriel is doing a good job as economics minister and vice-chancellor, his party is not rising in opinion polls.
In fact, the SPD’s performance in general is not the root cause of its disappointing approval ratings. The coalition’s reform projects – increase in the minimum wage, an agreement to set retirement at 63 – clearly bear the signature of the Social Democrats. The real reasons for the party’s inability to cash in on its actions are more of its own making.
The SPD's performance in general is not the root cause of its disappointing approval ratings.
Every revolution in the German Federal Republic needs grass roots support. If Mr. Gabriel wants to be at the same level as Chancellor Angela Merkel in the coming election, he needs strong backing from his party organizations in Germany’s 16 states to achieve change in Berlin. But there is little indication these groups are ready to enter the fray.
In Rhineland-Palatinate, the SPD is threatening to drown in the state elections following its disastrous and costly attempt to save a new theme park development at Germany’s famous Nürburgring racing circuit. In Berlin, a completely unknown new mayor has yet to prove himself. In Hamburg, the SPD is likely to lose its absolute majority in the upcoming city council elections. And in Bavaria, the party has been unable to gain ground despite the increasingly frenzied actions of its leader, an SPD rival.
This is not enough to win an election. It falls to North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s industrial heartland and the “heart and soul” of social democracy, to provide a boost to Mr. Gabriel. Yet Hannelore Kraft, its minister-president, is watching Mr. Gabriel from the sidelines and doing little to strengthen his support.
Strong leadership of the party and parliamentary group is also urgently needed. But Mr. Gabriel’s general secretary, Yasmin Fahimi, who was seen as having a calming effect on state organizations, has been no help. Her appearances on talk shows tend to reinforce the image of discontent in the party. And when she lashes out, she usually hits the wrong people.
Strong leadership of the party and parliamentary group is also urgently needed.
Most recently, she demanded the abolishment of the German Council of Economic Experts, a panel of five “sages” who advise the government on policy, seemingly becasue she disagrees with their opinions. It was yet another display of her lack of debating skills.
Thomas Oppermann, chairman of the SPD Parliamentary Group, is also having a hard time. Having been knocked by a child pornography scandal, he’s been unable to bring the image of the SPD in the Bundestag (the German parliament) into focus. Volker Kauder, the chairman of the combined parliamentary group of the ruling center-right Christian Democrats, is firmly establishing their position in the Bundestag, while Mr. Oppermann works to get back on track.
The SPD’s vice-chair, Ralf Stegner, is not helping matters by pursuing his own agenda.
Willy Brandt once said, “Whoever loses the center also loses the majority.” What the SPD needs is an alliance of socialism and liberalism, a pact between employees and employers. But the popularity of the socialist Left Party makes this tricky.
Franz Müntefering, another former SPD leader, once said being SPD chairman is the most beautiful position next to that of the pope, but considering the condition of the party today, Mr. Gabriel’s political appetite will be far from satisfied. He has no desire to remain the junior partner in the coalition. He wants to climb all the way to the top, as Mr. Schröder did.
The most crucial problem facing Mr. Gabriel is whether Ms. Merkel will run again. She has shown no evidence that she may be tiring of being Germany’s leader and all indications are that she will seek re-election. This means Mr. Gabriel must think of something fast if he wants to challenge her, as she enjoys broad political support from 60 percent of voters compared to just 10 percent for him.
Meanwhile, he may face a challenge from within his own party. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Foreign Minister, has never been so popular with voters and may have found a winning campaigning issue with his policy of easing tensions with Russia.
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