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With Eye to 2017 Election, German SPD Chief Tacks to Right

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Sigmar Gabriel, the head of Germany's Social Democratic Party.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    As the head of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, Sigmar Gabriel will almost certainly be his party’s candidate for chancellor in 2017.

  • Facts


    • Ms. Merkel is at the peak of her power largely because the center-right Christian Democratic Union has moved to address social concerns, poaching voters from other parties.
    • Sigmar Gabriel understands that in prosperous times the best strategy for gaining power is appealing to hard-working employees and entrepreneurs.
    • While this may be a threat to the Grand Coalition created by the two parties, Mr. Gabriel’s efforts could be beneficial to Germany.
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With the federal election campaign for the Bundestag already underway, the Social Democratic Party chairman and vice-chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, is plotting a course to become Chancellor in 2017.

The leader of the left-leaning party in Angela Merkel’s right-left broad coalition is taking a page from Mrs. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union by reaching out to the opposition. Just as Ms. Merkel has nudged her own CDU party, bit by bit, toward the left in order to take votes from the SPD, Mr. Gabriel wants to position his party as more liberal yet more business-friendly.

His efforts underscore a rejection of dogmatic and ideological politics, which have not been effective in dealing with the reality of rapid changes in the economy and society at large.

In fact, the leader of the SPD has little alternative if he wants any kind of chance at all in the next federal elections against Ms. Merkel, who is at the zenith of her power and influence. She has shown how to win elections at a time when the number of core voters are shrinking by gradually opening her party to a more moderate, social political agenda.

So far, there are few details about his overall proposals, only individual elements such as abolishing cold progression in tax law, which occurs when pay adjustments related to inflation push someone’s income into a higher tax bracket.

Election analysis revealed that around 210,000 SPD voters put their ballot marks next to the CDU.

Even 120,000 supporters of the left-leaning socialist Linke Party voted for the CDU last September. Those ballots helped Ms. Merkel gather 7 million more votes than the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, Peer Steinbrück.

Now it’s Mr. Gabriel who seeks to poach votes from the CDU by stressing a business-friendly profile.

So far, there are few details about his overall proposals, only individual elements such as abolishing cold progression in tax law, which occurs when pay adjustments related to inflation push someone’s income into a higher tax bracket. He’s also talking about improving ways companies can take tax write-offs and creating an “anti-bureaucracy” plan to help start-up companies get off the ground.

Mr. Gabriel is surely correct in realizing that elections held at a time of near full-employment are won not by appealing to those in the welfare offices, but to the thousands working in mid-sized companies. Political solutions must target the mainstream of society … the hard-working, highly-qualified employees and entrepreneurs.


Don’t call me a copycat. Source: Reuters


Yet Mr. Gabriel has a long and difficult journey to achieve his goals and the revival of German Social Democratic politics won’t be without contradictions. Certainly, those who identify with the SPD for its allegiance to workers and to the struggle for social justice will see those constituencies threated by any move to the right.

There are already anguished reactions from the party’s more leftist elements about current programs, but that likely is only a small taste of the inner party conflict that could be unleashed.

But, if Mr. Gabriel succeeds in developing a credible policy with appeal beyond party lines, the SPD can become a threat to Ms. Merkel in the next parliamentary elections, despite lingering admiration within the CDU for the current chancellor’s crisis management and style of governing.

Ms. Merkel’s abrupt changes in energy policies, her support for an obligatory minimum wage and the promised multi-billion-euro bailout of highly indebted Eurozone nations have created discontent within the CDU.

These frustrations should not be underestimated.

Almost 300,000 CDU voters in the past election cast ballots for the Alternative for Germany party, a Eurosceptic party created just last year. If the chancellor wants to avoid losing even more conservative voters, she simply cannot continue to let CDU slide to the left. Ms. Merkel’s advantage as incumbent chancellor won’t hold up forever.

She’ll be closely monitoring the new positioning of Mr. Gabriel and the SPD in coming months. The fact that the vice-chancellor will use the regulatory powers of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy will be a real stress test for Ms. Merkel’s big coalition. Mr. Gabriel has already declared his opposition to both military arms exports and tax bracket creep and there likely will be other skirmishes if the leader of the SPD wants to portray a business-friendly image.

The fight to attract the support of the hard-working mainstream of society can only be beneficial to Germany.

Neither the CDU nor the SPD can boast of major achievements in recent years. It’s another reason why the grand coalition looks more like a sociopolitical manifesto than a reform agenda ensuring continued prosperity while addressing the future needs of the nation. It’s a commendable undertaking to correct such an imbalance.

If Mr. Gabriel is serious, this legislative period could hold pleasant surprises, and the next parliamentary election could be much more exciting.

Sven Afhüppe is deputy editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt. He can be reached at s.afhueppe@handelsblatt.com



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