Germans have a word for the women who cleared up the ragged ruins of the cities bombed in World Word II – they were called “Trümmerfrauen,” or literally rubble women. Given her situation, Andrea Nahles must be feeling a bit like a Trümmerfrau herself.
The 47-year-old parliamentary floor leader on Tuesday was nominated as head of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which has been buried in a mountain of political rubble after months of chaos and infighting in the party’s leadership, overshadowing efforts to secure the rank and file’s support for a new coalition with Angela Merkel.
Her nomination comes amid some of the most turbulent days for Germany’s oldest and second-biggest party, which finds itself in a near free-fall in the polls. The latest survey by the pollster Insa shows the center-left Social Democrats winning only 16.5 percent of the vote if elections were held now. That would be 4 points below the party’s September election result, its worst in more than 60 years. It would also put the Social Democrats just 1.5 percentage points ahead of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a populist party on the far right that entered the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, for the first time last year.
Ms. Nahles won’t officially take over until late April. Internal party rules forced the party’s leadership to appoint one of its deputies, Olaf Scholz, to serve as acting chairman until delegates can vote on their new head at a party conference on April 22. The party’s embattled current leader, Martin Schulz, agreed to step down immediately.
Despite the delay, Ms. Nahles’ biggest task in coming weeks will be swaying grassroots members to vote for the new governing coalition. She has said she supports the coalition agreement negotiated last week, giving her a key role in persuading reluctant SPD members to back the alliance – even though she will not actually take up a cabinet post in the new coalition. A vote of the SPD’s more than 460,000 members will wrap up in early March. Only after that can her broader role of re-energizing the party begin in earnest.
Long seen as a leader in waiting, Ms. Nahles would be the first woman to chair the SPD, after becoming the first woman to head the party’s parliamentary group. And if one can believe what she noted in her high-school yearbook, her ambitions won’t stop there: Her dream, she wrote, was someday to become “a housewife or chancellor.”
“Starting tomorrow, we’ll be punching them (the opposition) in the face.”
Ms. Nahles clearly emerged as Mr. Schulz’s heir after delivering a fiery, barnstorming speech at a party conference in January, on the heels of the beleaguered chairman’s lackluster monologue. An assertive speaker known for her blunt manner and strong words, she came across at the conference like a football coach ripping into an underperforming team during the half-time break, cursing, waving her fists and pounding on the podium. She demanded delegates to back the new coalition and promised in return that she would “negotiate until the other side squeals.” She won their support.
Born into a working-class family near the German-Belgian border, Ms. Nahles understands the needs of manual laborers (her father worked a lifetime in the construction industry). So perhaps it was fitting that her first-ever cabinet post was labor minister, where her key goal was to improve workers’ rights. In that role, she introduced Germany’s first nationwide minimum wage in 2015 against fierce resistance in a country that has always favored collective agreements for individual sectors. Hailing from her party’s left wing but having modified her younger image as a socialist rabble-rouser, she also reformed the pension system to allow some people to retire at 63. These were just two of the 39 bills she spearheaded in parliament.
After September’s election defeat, Ms. Nahles took over as SPD parliamentary floor leader. Her job, she thought, was to enter into opposition against Ms. Merkel as her party’s leadership vowed not to join another coalition. The straight-talker Nahles grabbed the headlines when she quipped: “Starting tomorrow, we’ll be punching them (the opposition) in the face.” Not everyone understood her humor, but she didn’t mind.
It was not her first memorable performance: In 2013, she attacked Ms. Merkel in the Bundestag with a rendition of a popular line from the Pippi Longstocking theme song: “I’m making the world widdle widdle wid how I like it.”
The Bild newspaper has described her as “the only real guy in the SPD.” Mr. Schulz, who like Ms. Merkel respects her negotiating expertise and ability to find compromises, referred to her as both “a hammer and an anvil,” someone who “can dish it out but can also take it in.”
Unlike Mr. Schulz, an outsider for many SPD members after more than two decades in the European Parliament, Ms. Nahles has deep roots in the party. She joined the Social Democrats when she was 18 and later founded a local party chapter in her village of Mendig. While studying literature, philosophy and political science, she became the leader of the SPD’s youth organization, the Jusos. She joined the Bundestag in 1998 and later served as the SPD’s party administrator before becoming labor minister in 2014.
A practicing Roman Catholic mother but separated from her art historian husband, Ms. Nahles lives with her 6-year-old daughter in the farmhouse that belonged to her grandparents. A car enthusiast, she commutes between the farmhouse and Berlin, though her love of cars has left her with a scar on her forehead and a fractured hip following a crash.
If she can heal the many scars in her own party, perhaps her dream of higher political office can come true, too.
John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org