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With Eye on Election, German SPD Chief Gets Down To Business

Source: DPA
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    If the Social Democrats can persuade German voters they can manage the economy, they will have a better chance of leading the country.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Ahead of federal elections in 2017, the Social Democratic leader wants to re-position his party as a friend of business.
    • The SPD lost the last two federal elections against Angela Merkel by big margins.
    • Economic exports warn Germany needs to reform its economy to maintain momentum.
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    Audio

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In a political change of tactic with an eye to the next federal elections in 2017, the head of Germany’s Social Democratic Party on Tuesday will unveil a new six-point plan that aims to reposition the junior coalition partner as a friend of German business.

The plan to be presented by Sigmar Gabriel, the SPD party leader and vice chancellor, will focus on improving worker training, reducing bureaucracy and lowering energy costs, according to a copy of his plan obtained by Handelsblatt. Mr. Gabriel is supposed to present details of his plan on Tuesday in a speech with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to a business gathering.

For Mr. Gabriel and Germany’s Social Democrats, the stakes are high. The party did poorly in the last two national elections in 2009 and 2013, and lost significant support in a recent election in the German state of Thuringia. In general, German voters do not trust the SPD’s ability to manage Europe’s largest economy.

“The truth is that the Social Democrats are not regarded as economically competent among voters,” said Gero Neugebauer, a political science expert at the Free University in Berlin.

“I hope that this will pull us out of the low we had lately”

Heiner Bartling, Former SPD interior minister in Mr. Gabriel’s home state of Lower Saxony.

To counter this perception, Mr. Gabriel, who is also Germany’s energy and economics minister in a coalition government with Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party, signaled he wanted to move his party to the right, away from its traditional focus on social welfare.

His six-point plan, which is short on details, aims to appeal to wary German businesses and reposition the SPD in a more modern and progressive light, said Heiner Bartling, a former SPD interior minister in Mr. Gabriel’s home state of Lower Saxony.

“I hope that this will pull us out of the low we had lately,” Mr. Bartling told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “This is the only way if we want to remain a catch-all party with mass appeal,” he added.

Mr. Bartling worked closely with the SPD leader from 1999 and 2003 when Mr. Gabriel was the Lower Saxony state premier. Time is running out for the SPD to reestablish its economic credentials with German voters, said Mr. Neugebauer, of the Free University.

“The Social Democrats have to send a message to voters: we have economic competencies as well,” Mr. Neugebauer said. “Up until now, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats are the ones perceived as the country’s economic wizards.”

“Mr. Gabriel understood that he has to protect German industry from further burdens and to strengthen its competitiveness”

Michael Fuchs, Deputy head of the governing Christian Democrats.

Mr. Gabriel, who is likely to be the challenger to the German chancellor in the 2017 federal elections, will outline his plan to a conference of the German Federation of Industries on Tuesday. The plan will urge more training for skilled workers, reducing administrative hurdles for young companies, expanding support for start-ups and lowering energy costs.

Germany’s energy costs are among the highest in Europe, in part because the country is paying for a costly transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy.

Skepticism remains about whether Mr. Gabriel’s new plan is just window dressing or will evoke fundamental changes in the economic agenda of the Social Democrats.

“Mr. Gabriel understood that he has to protect German industry from further burdens and to strengthen its competitiveness,” said Michael Fuchs, the deputy parliamentary leader of the governing Christian Democrats.

Mr. Gabriel is well-regarded in Germany’s industrial sector thanks to his tenure in Lower Saxony and its capital, Hannover, a hub for steel, engineering and mining, where he always maintained good relations with business.

“People like him there,” Mr. Neugebauer said.

Mr. Gabriel’s plan aims to address Germany’s major weaknesses.

While Germany still outperforms other European countries and is competitive internationally, according the World Economic Forum, some experts here fear that Germany is only cruising on its laurels, and has little lined up for the future.

This is why Mr. Gabriel wants to strike a better pose as he approaches the 2017 election. His predecessors Peer Steinbrück, a brainy finance expert, and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a protégé of former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, were beaten badly by Ms. Merkel in 2013 and 2009, respectively.

Mr. Gabriel was said to have chosen the post in the Ministry for Energy and Economics on purpose to send a message that the SPD has what it takes to lead Europe’s largest economy. But his biggest challenge may not be convincing voters, but rallying his own party behind him. Many SPD members cling to its social agenda and are concerned that Mr. Gabriel’s new plan may be too close to Ms. Merkel’s own agenda.

“He has to make people in his own party understand this message as well,” said Mr. Fuchs of the Christian Democrats.

 

German Competetiveness

 

Both authors are based in Berlin. Mr. Stratmann covers energy related topics for the German edition of Handelsblatt while Ms. Scheven is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: stratmann@handelsblatt.com and scheven@handelsblatt.com

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