The motions are piling up ahead of the Social Democrats’ convention this Saturday in Berlin. Nearly 100 of them apply to data retention and 40 to TTIP – the planned free-trade agreement between Europe and the United States. These are the issues that most deeply divide the center-left SPD, which is junior partner to Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats in the ruling government coalition.
Those at the SPD headquarters, however, are maintaining a relaxed attitude. They insist that the party will end up backing its leader, Sigmar Gabriel, despite calls for changes from within the party.
Nevertheless, there is still considerable cause to be concerned.
For Mr. Gabriel, who serves as deputy chancellor and economics minister in the government, it’s all on the line, and his future as SPD leader depends on the outcome.
For months he has championed the free-trade treaty and data retention – and in his view, the party has to come to terms with his stands on both controversial issues.
In an interview with business daily, WirtschaftsWoche, Mr. Gabriel argued that he had not come up with data retention on his own, but rather it was “the SPD conference, the SPD parliamentary group and the nine SPD interior ministers” who had suggested it.
“If they snub the chairman, he would have little choice but to resign.”
As for TTIP, currently stalled in both Europe and the United States, he said: “Global trade is becoming increasingly important, and there will be other treaties, such as between the United States and China. Who believes that those standards will be better than the ones that we are agreeing to with the Americans?”
However, many in the SPD are fervently opposed to both policies.
Many were dismayed that the SPD justice minister, Heiko Maas, did a U-turn and agreed to work on a data retention law, after coming under pressure from Mr. Gabriel.
Germany’s mass-circulation Bild newspaper has reported that Mr. Gabriel has threatened to resign if he doesn’t get his way at Saturday’s convention. Party leaders deny that, but are clear that Saturday will be the decisive day.
The convention is the party’s most important decision-making body between party conferences. Attended by some 200 party members from all levels, it is a stage of Mr. Gabriel’s own making and one of the results of the last party reform. The chairman implemented it with the help of former general secretary, Andrea Nahles, who now serves as labor minister in the ruling right-left coalition.
He has already shown his ability to convince the convention in the past, as he did at the end of 2013, when members gave him the go-ahead for re-entering a coalition with Ms. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats. But that doesn’t mean a positive outcome on Saturday can be taken for granted.
There are rumors in party circles that many members feel their chairman doesn’t take them seriously. Mr. Gabriel has clear ideas about the SPD of the future and that entails shifting it to the center. He doesn’t want it to be perceived as the nation’s social welfare office, but rather to reach out to middle-class high-achievers and the business community.
The party is struggling to increase its support beyond around 25 percent, despite the fact that up to now the SPD has set much of the agenda in the government, for example on early retirement and a minimum wage.
Mr. Gabriel sees an opportunity to win over centrist voters with more business-friendly policies.
TTIP is a good example. While many members see risks, Mr. Gabriel emphasizes business opportunities of the free trade agreement.
“If we don’t make an attempt to define the rules, others will,” said Mr. Gabriel.
This is all going too far and too fast for many party traditionalists. They complain that Mr. Gabriel doesn’t listen to their arguments.
“From the party convention, I expect an open debate, focusing on the issues at hand,” said Matthias Miersch, an SPD lawmaker and spokesman for the party’s left-wing faction.
“We don’t do ourselves any favors when we confuse matters of personnel with a rational debate on telecommunications data retention or TTIP,” he said, in obvious reference to the reports of Mr. Gabriel’s threatened resignation.
Mr. Gabriel’s supporters say their leader is in no way expecting too much of the party. On issues like TTIP and data retention, he has taken positions in line with long-standing party conference resolutions, they say.
On the free trade treaty, they point out that Mr. Gabriel helped insert important SPD demands into negotiations between the European Union and United States.
Oskar Niedermayer, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University, is skeptical about what Mr. Gabriel’s opponents hope to achieve with a party fight. If the SPD rank and file wants to retain any hope of leading a government that does not include the Christian Democrats, they should let their party leader have his way on data retention and TTIP issues, he said.
“If they snub the chairman, he would have little choice but to resign,” Mr. Niedermayer told Handelsblatt. “But I don’t see anyone right now who could take over from him.”
Mr. Niedermayer doesn’t expect the party to obstruct Mr. Gabriel – if only for strategic reasons.
The only chance the SPD has to win the elections in 2017 and unseat Ms. Merkel is to join together with the Greens and the far-left Left Party. And that means that the SPD needs to focus on the political center and leave the more left-wing voters to the Left Party.
Klaus Stratmann covers energy policy from Berlin and Matthias Streit is a trainee journalist at Handelsblatt. Gregor Peter Schmitz from WirtschaftsWoche also contributed to this article. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com.