The Social Democrats seem to be stumbling into an ever deeper rut. After losing three crucial state elections back to back, they tripped again on Monday when trying to spell out policies to fight Chancellor Angela Merkel in federal elections just four months away.
It began with a press conference to announce the election manifesto of the Social Democratic Party, or SPD. The conference was on, then off, then on again but with a delay because of a suspected bomb threat, which cleared the party’s headquarters in the Willy-Brandt-Haus. When everyone was later seated, Martin Schulz, the chairman of the Social Democratic Party, or SPD, and its chancellor candidate was nowhere in sight.
Journalists appeared puzzled by the absence of the party’s chief salesman. But Mr. Schulz may have had a good reason to dodge the inquisitive Berlin media and let his deputies field the pestering questions – his party is still wrangling over details on key issues such as taxes and pensions.
SPD General Secretary Katarina Barley conceded that party leaders at the federal and state levels submitted amendments in “high three-digit” figures. The number of changes are surprising, given the party’s election manifesto has been under deliberation for months.
“I’ll deliver a tax policy when I’m 100 percent certain that everything has been calculated.”
Later Monday evening, in an interview with the public broadcaster ZDF, Mr. Schulz called the changes “mostly of semantic nature” and defended his party’s decision to wait with the details. “I’m not going to make any massive tax promises” that aren’t backed up with a workable plan, he said, reacting to significant tax reductions advocated by Horst Seehofer, the head of the Christian Social Union and sister party of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. “I’ll deliver a tax policy when I’m 100 percent certain that everything has been calculated.”
Mr. Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament, lifted the SPD in the polls after taking over as party head earlier this year. But the euphoria he triggered, the so-called “Schulz effect,” has all but fizzled out. Political observers attribute the party’s poor showing, particularly in its North Rhine-Westphalia stronghold, to Mr. Schulz’s vague campaign built on the theme of social justice. After the stinging defeat, he conceded in an interview he would need to make his positions “more concrete” to voters.
But the 71-page paper document presented on Monday is thin on details. Its three overarching issues are social justice, a solid German future and a strong European Union. Thomas Oppermann, chairman of the party’s parliamentary group, said the program aimed at making Germany “stronger, safer and more just” and would help the many workers “passed up by the economic upswing.”
Selling social justice, however, could be a tough sell with the German economy firing on all cylinders. But Mr. Schulz argued that wealth needs to be more evenly distributed and Manuela Schwesig, the SPD family minister, warned at the media conference that “many people are asking themselves how long (the economic boom) will last and will it be just as good for their children.”
The party’s election campaign calls for higher taxes on high earners and tax relief for those on low and middle-incomes, a core group of SPD voters. The peak tax rate, which today kicks in at €54,000 ($60,640), “needs to be raised,” Ms. Barley told reporters, adding that greater funding of services would help families save money. She mentioned free education as an example, from day care to vocational training and university studies.
“The SPD’s plan to help families by reducing the costs of child care are good,” Peter Bofinger, a member of the German Council of Economic Experts, told Handelsblatt. “But with moderate tax reductions, let’s say €20 per month, there’s always the question if that really provides noticeable relief.”
The Social Democrats are also seeking greater protections for employees, for instance, by preventing employers from imposing temporary contracts on workers and by allowing people to draw unemployment longer if they enlist in training programs to learn new skills.
On pensions, their manifesto calls for keeping future levels stable but, as with taxes, provided no details on how to do so. Mr. Schulz said he would deliver details on taxes and pensions well ahead of a vote on the party manifesto at the party conference in Dortmund on June 25.
Like the CDU-CSU, the Social Democrats hope to score points on security. They would create 15,000 new jobs in law enforcement and provide more money for the justice system, which is battling with a backlog of cases in courts.
But they will make few friends with NATO and US President Donald Trump, who has called for higher spending by member states of the defense alliance. Under the SPD, the defense budget would not be increased to 2 percent of gross domestic product, as agreed among members in the military group. Instead, the party would invest more in development aid and crisis prevention.
The manifesto includes infrastructure investments, especially in high-speed internet services. The plan, according to Ms. Barley, is to connect 95 percent of German households to glass-fiber cables by 2025.
John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. Handelsblatt editors Heike Anger and Donata Riedel contributed to this story. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org