SPD Leadership

From Backroom to Backbench

Martin Schulz is no longer giving the orders as Andrea Nahles and others lead the party in opposition. Source: Reuters

Finger-pointing hardly does justice to the recriminations coursing through Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the wake of their devastating electoral defeat on Sunday, but for historical reasons, Germans tend to avoid the term “Night of the Long Knives” for political purges. In Germany, that term refers to the wave of assassinations instigated by Hitler in 1934 to consolidate his control of the Nazi party.

The bloodletting in the SPD has been metaphorical, but it has only just begun. The party obtained just 20.5 percent of the vote, its worst result in the postwar period, and lost 40 seats in parliament to keep only 153. It has been a downward spiral since Gerhard Schröder led the party to 40.9 percent of the vote in 1998 and 298 seats in parliament. Mr. Schröder became chancellor in coalition with the Greens.

So when the hapless Martin Schulz, who headed the SPD ticket into this electoral debacle, suggested Monday night that the party should embark on a “Project 40” to double its vote by 2021, a true sense of alternate reality settled onto party members and left many of them shaking their heads. It was bad enough after the SPD’s deplorable performance that Mr. Schulz reportedly thought he should lead the diminished parliamentary group as the party goes into opposition.

In fact, in the backroom dealing to divvy up the top posts in parliament, Mr. Schulz came out empty-handed. The former president of the European Parliament, who had virtually no experience in domestic politics when he stepped in last January as a fresh face for chancellor-candidate, is still the titular head of the party, but the feeling is growing that his days are numbered.

In the backroom dealing to divvy up the top posts in parliament, Mr. Schulz came out empty-handed.

In retrospect, Mr. Schulz seems to have been banking on a continuation of the grand coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Certainly his deferential performance in the single televised debate with Ms. Merkel was more like a job interview for a cabinet post than a vigorous confrontation. According to party insiders, Mr. Schulz still clung to this hope Sunday night until other party officials convinced him it was vital for the SPD to go into opposition and show voters once again what the party stands for.

While Mr. Schulz was destined to bear the brunt of the party’s anger, members have plenty of blame left over for Sigmar Gabriel, the former party leader who dithered until January about whether to head the ticket and then abandoned the field to Mr. Schulz with too little time to mount a proper campaign. Mr. Gabriel, who will remain foreign minister in the grand coalition’s time as caretaker government, has been missing in action since the election. He failed to show up at the party’s annual garden party hosted by the Seeheimer Kreis, a grouping of the more centrist, less dogmatic SPD members.

Party members fault him for sidestepping the role of chancellor-candidate three times in a row. In 2009, he let Frank-Walter Steinmeier, now Germany’s president, take on that role, capturing only 23 percent. Then in 2013, even when Mr. Gabriel was the official party leader, it was Peer Steinbrück who headed the ticket, marginally improving the result to 25.3 percent. And this time around, he waited too long to decide before handing over the reins to Mr. Schulz.

So the party is forging ahead without its two erstwhile leaders. Andrea Nahles, the leftist labor minister in the grand coalition government, was designated leader of the parliamentary caucus and will be opposition leader. To balance out the ideological split in the party, Carsten Schneider, a leader of the Seeheimer Kreis, will be No. 2 in a position approximating that of party whip.

There were complaints about how quickly these posts were decided in backroom deals rather than formal voting once the new caucus is constituted. The first sitting of the newly elected Bundestag must take place within 30 days, even though wrangling over the composition of the government may take longer than that and the current government remains in caretaker capacity until the new one is approved by a majority.

As heavy as the losses were for the SPD, they were equally strong in percentage terms for Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU). Their 8.6 percentage point loss was down 20.7 percent from the 41.5 percent result in 2013, compared to a 20.2 percent decline for the SPD, from 25.7 to 20.5 percent. And yet Mr. Schulz is being reviled as a scapegoat while Ms. Merkel is hailed as a victor.

Both mainstream parties took a beating from voters, while all four smaller parties posted gains. Along with that, however, was a notable erosion of support for leftist parties – SPD, the Left party and the Greens. Their combined showing was 38.6 percent in this election, compared to 42.7 percent in 2013.

There is a saying in German, “Whoever as a youth doesn’t vote left has no heart; whoever as an elder still does that, has no understanding.” By that measure, young voters in Germany are showing little heart. Data from Infratest imap shows that the leftist parties captured only 45 percent of first-time voters in western Germany, the same as the conservative parties – CDU/CSU, Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD). The leftist total in eastern Germany was only 40 percent.

This is hardly promising for the future of the SPD or the left in general. At least the election debacle has enabled the SPD to pass the torch to younger leaders. Both Ms. Nahles and Mr. Schneider are in their 40s. Perhaps this is the party’s true Project 40.

Several Handelsblatt political reporters contributed to this article. Washington, DC-based Darrell Delamaide wrote this version for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: D.Delamaide@extern.handelsblatt.com.

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