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.

The third question is that in the last 20 years, four parties have sprung up competing with the SPD, from the Green party to the Left party, then Chancellor Angela Merkel’s social democratized Christian Democratic Union (CDU). And now there’s the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD). How come the SPD isn’t claiming back supporters from those parties?

We’ve succeeded in doing that in states like Hamburg and, more recently, Rhineland-Palatinate. On the federal level, the CDU has become so social democratic, that we’re now looking at red-green policies [a reference to the SPD and the Green Party] in the grand coalition [of the SPD and the CDU]. The CDU has practically surrendered to the SPD. This is a huge success for us! But it means that old controversies, where the social democratic profile was obvious, have been overcome, or at least it looks that way. Climate protection, phasing out nuclear energy, workers’ participation in management, all-day schools. These are all things that the CDU, under Ms. Merkel, wanted to get rid of only a few years ago, and now it supports them.

But new questions and controversies have arisen too, like the refugee issue.

Sure. But you wanted to know why the others are feeding on us while we are not feeding on them: It’s because social democratic values have made the others more attractive to our electorate. In the past, ethnic Turks living in Germany voted almost 100 percent SPD. Today they also vote for the CDU or the Green Party. This may be bad for the SPD, but it’s good for the country, because it shows how well these people have been integrated into society.

Why don’t social democratic CDU voters vote for the original, the SPD, instead?

If you had woken a conservative up in the middle of the night 20 years and asked: “What does the CDU stand for?” right away, the answer would have been: “For conscription, for nuclear energy and against gay marriage.” About the only thing that person would be able to say nowadays is: “Not creating new debt.” Nevertheless, that person is still likely to be a voter for the CDU, because the cultural distance to the SPD is too large. However, many of those who have long led a shadowy existence on the fringes of the CDU have lost their homes along this path of social liberalization. These angry white men became visible as a result of the refugee crisis, when they latched onto the Alternative for Germany party.

While the SPD was licking its wounds from the reforms in Agenda 2010, terrible things were happening around the world, from the collapse of Lehman Brothers, for which Wall Street remains unpunished, to the euro crisis, which came at the expense of taxpayers. Then there was the Panama Papers, which suggested wealthy people were all trying to cheat the tax authorities. Where is the SPD’s outrage?

To be honest, we deliberately failed in the experiment in which we seethed with outrage, while simultaneously allowing the banks and, therefore the entire economy to collapse. That’s because well-paid politicians didn’t have to bear the consequences, but rather ordinary people, who were out of a job for years on end.

But there is one thing we completely lack to this day: To make the banks pay a reasonable share of the costs resulting from their obscenities. Some social democratic parties in Europe are bowing to the threatening gestures of the financial markets and preventing us from introducing a tax on financial transactions.

The SPD will become stronger and happier again when Europe’s social democrats join forces to oppose the power of the markets. At every SPD event, people stand up to express their outrage over how the financial markets try to blackmail lawmakers. Or at the fact that managers who practically ruin companies collect millions in bonuses afterwards.

The only leader who has publicly and loudly criticized the bonus payments at Volkswagen is Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.

That’s incorrect. Stephan Weil, the premier of Lower Saxony, was at least as loud. But politicians with government responsibility should never engage in a contest over getting the public riled up. Firstly, they could never win it, because opposition parties always have to shout louder. And secondly, because people expect more of them than to get upset. Vocal outrage alone, at any rate, is not a method that will help improve the SPD’s approval rating. The right action is much more effective.

Many Social Democrats are involved in caring for the needs of refugees. But many Social Democrats are also worried that the number of refugees is drifting upwards towards the infinite. Does the SPD have a vision for how to stabilize these Arab and African regions in such a way that people will stay there?

We Europeans must change our outlook. Or, to put it differently, Europe has to develop a common approach to foreign policy. We have treated people in Africa and the Middle East as the targets of our compassion for much too long – and their countries as suppliers of natural resources, and the objects of our own interests. Aside from that, we have turned over the region to the United States. We have failed to develop an alternative to the American policy of intervention. It is time for Europe to finally step in and fill the vacuum the Americans are leaving behind. If that were the case, European citizens would recognize, once again, why European unity is important. Nowadays Europe pays attention to some pointless issues, while truly important tasks like those of foreign and security policy are neglected.

In the 1970s, European Social Democracy, under German Chancellor Willy Brandt, Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky and Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, had a progressive approach to what we used to call the Third World…

…Yes, they brought the freedom movements of the time into the Socialist International, partly to democratize them. But it is also true that former freedom movements have sometimes become degenerate, corrupt and occasionally even slave drivers.

Nevertheless, you said a few days ago that Social Democrats tend the view the question of justice as an international rather than a national concern. What does that mean?

Because I didn’t want to accept the decline of the Socialist International, I spent a long time, together with others, trying to reform it. Unfortunately we didn’t succeed. Then, three years ago, we founded the Progressive Alliance with a few friends. Today it includes 120 leftist parties from all continents. It is an attempt to find coordinated social democratic responses to global problems. But these responses grow more slowly than the problems. Nevertheless, there is no alternative.

All of that sounds big and fundamental. Does your party need a new beginning, one that signals: We are not giving up on ourselves, or on the 2017 national election?

We are proud of our policies, which is why we don’t need a new beginning. This is why I caution against using such concepts, because they tell the world: I have the one big master plan.

Wouldn’t it be a good thing if you had this master plan?

But it doesn’t exist. I don’t think much of salvation fantasies. But I do believe in showing self-confidence. We have excellent prospects of achieving a truly strong showing in the Bundestag election. But this requires that we be proud of our actions in the government, and that we demonstrate poise. To put it bluntly: If we only get 20 percent, then it should be a proud 20 percent.

Poise helps preserve dignity. But how can the SPD become stronger again?

By talking about the future of our country, because we are the only ones doing that. And by approaching reforms in a more fundamental way in the future. The things we rightfully view as great achievements – the minimum wage, rent control – are merely social repair in the eyes of many voters. Look at pensions, for example. In the past, all we did was constantly make adjustments to somehow keep pension levels stable. That’s no longer good enough. We should ask ourselves: Don’t we have to bring our system more in line with that of Switzerland’s, where the millionaire is taxed according to his financial strength, but gets out less in the end than he paid in?

The second example is education. We need something like a popular movement to abolish the ban on cooperation between the federal and state governments. It’s crazy that there is no cooperation on what is probably the most important issue for our country’s future. We need federal funds to upgrade schools so that they become the cathedrals of the 21st century, and no longer the bank towers. We start with the social hotspots. We pay for it by getting rid of the flat rate withholding tax. In the future, those who make their money in the stock market will no longer pay lower taxes than those who work in normal jobs.

More fundamental and more radical – is that your new approach?

Yes, but not because the SPD is becoming radicalized. Instead, it’s because conditions are becoming radicalized. If €150 billion ($167 billion), or half the federal budget, is lost to the public good each year because the rich and the super-rich have abandoned all solidarity with society, this is radically antisocial – and a radical assault on the foundations of our society. We need to fight back, through regulation of banks and financial markets, through redistribution, by closing tax loopholes and by creating legislation to eliminate the legal tricks we saw in the Panama Papers.

A few months ago, you announced they you would not present a concept for raising taxes in the 2017 election campaign. Will it happen after all?

My goal is not higher or new national taxes. I want to get at the €150 billion lost to the government each year through tax evasion and avoidance. I very much welcome the fact that E.U. Commissioner Margrethe Vestager now wants the use competition law to get big tax avoiders like Amazon, Google and Starbucks to pay up.

That sounds a little bit like a new beginning.

It isn’t a new beginning, because we have already been on this path for the last few years. The message is not: We did everything wrong recently. We didn’t. In fact, we did many things right.

03 Party Popularity-01


During the time in which you were doing so many things right, the world has become a very different place – and perceptions of the world have also changed.

The world hasn’t really changed that much, but perceptions have. Many people, especially many Social Democrats, warned 20 years ago against what all of us are now seeing expressed by the refugee crisis: That the poverty of the south, for which we are partly responsible, is now arriving on our doorstep.

It isn’t just the SPD that is in crisis. With the exception of Canada and Italy, all social democratic parties in Western democracies are now ailing. And although social democracy is in crisis internationally, there is no international debate on the problem. Do you want to change this?

I don’t want to debate about the crisis of social democracy, but about the crisis of capitalism. And about the conditions for social democratic policies, because they have truly changed. Confidence in the collective capacity to take action and expansion of the national social welfare state were the two central conditions for the success of social democracy throughout the world. I will soon invite the members of our Progressive Alliance to Germany for a conference, where this is precisely what we will discuss. And we also need to be open to new leftist movements like Syriza in Greece. Its chairman, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, now even attends meetings of the social democratic party leaders and heads of government. We want to talk about how we can bring the vision of all social democracies to life: that globalization must mean justice for all and not just wealth for the few.

How can the SPD find the strength to raise its 20-percent poll rating?

The most important thing is not to focus on how to move away from the 20 percent. That could quickly be seen as a party tactic. We must do what we think is right and what we find convincing. Many people tell me that I am not always very authentic. The bitter truth is that I am completely inept when it comes to tactics.


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: redaktion@zeit.de

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