Exclusive interview

Reclaiming the Center Left

DUISBURG, GERMANY - APRIL 11: The German Federal Minister for Environment Sigmar Gabriel speaks during a protests of Steelworkers against European policies they see threatening their future in front of the ThyssenKrupp steelworks on April 11, 2016 in Duisburg, Germany. An estimated 10,000 steelworkers were to take part in the demonstration, supported by their corporate heads and leading politicians, as a sign to European Union policymakers in Brussels over CO2 emissions programs and what they see as price dumping by Chinese steelmakers on the European market. Duisburg is the heart of German steel making with three steelworks that employ 25,000 people. (Photo by Volker Hartmann/Getty Images)
A fighter who is trying to forge his party anew.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany’s center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has its lowest poll numbers in decades but party leader Sigmar Gabriel hopes to turn that around.

  • Facts


    • Mr. Gabriel has been chairman of the SPD for seven years.
    • Despite its low national poll numbers, the SPD is the governing party in 13 German states.
    • Other parties have pulled away voters from the SPD by adopting some of its positions.
  • Audio


  • Pdf

Germany’s center-left Social Democrat Party is battling with historically low ratings. The SPD is a partner in the governing coalition, but Mr. Gabriel, the vice chancellor, is looking ahead to Germany’s federal elections in fall 2017.

He talked to Die Zeit newspaper about how to revitalize the party which has struggled with reforms of Germany’s social welfare system, despite growing inequality. People don’t associate the SPD with the hope of a better society any more, he said, but added that he didn’t want to talk about the crisis of social democracy, but about the crisis of capitalism.

He outlined how he plans to win back the voters from other parties such as the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany and Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats.



DIE ZEIT: Mr. Gabriel, the SPD is struggling with three fundamental problems. First, more and more Germans think society is becoming increasingly unequal. Why isn’t this helping you, as the party of social justice? How can you make the party happy and proud again?

Sigmar Gabriel: I think happy is good, but seriously: On the one hand, in the past the SPD, under pressure from the media and academia, has been susceptible to the trend toward deregulation and privatization. This often led to people not getting ahead, although they were working hard. Secondly, many people no longer really believe that parties and political activity contribute to improving a person’s life. The message “Life is what you make of it” has taken effect. And thirdly, it takes time for people to become aware of reforms like the minimum wage and rent control, which we Social Democrats have achieved.

That brings us to the second difficulty: the wounds that followed the transformation of the social welfare state in the context of Agenda 2010. Ever since you became SPD chairman, you’ve worked on healing these wounds. The result is that the party is alive but not feeling any better.

Just a minute. The SPD is the governing party in 13 German states, and there are nine SPD state premiers. But the basic belief of workers that they can rely on the SPD and the unions when push comes to shove has disappeared. Too often we’re seen as a repair shop in the social welfare state. People don’t associate us enough with the hope of a better society.

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