Sometimes victory tastes like defeat. Andrea Nahles on Sunday became the first woman to lead Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) in its 155-year history. But the 66 percent of the votes she won — far less than expected — was more of a blow than a boost, sending her off to a decidedly rocky start.
The difficult challenges Ms. Nahles faces after her narrow victory may have only gotten tougher. In her twin roles as parliamentary leader and party chairwoman, she needs to revive the fortunes of the SPD, which suffered its worst electoral result in post-war history. She must also heal the internal divisions after the tortuous process of extending the “grand coalition” with Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian conservatives. And she will be under the gun to come up with a strategy to reverse the party’s dangerous decline, a trend facing Social Democrats across Europe.
Ms. Nahles’ speech to party delegates over the weekend gave a taste of how she may operate. She signaled a return to the basics of German social democracy, putting the interests of workers ahead of what she criticized as “digital capitalism.” While critical of the injustices of a “neoliberal, turbo-digital world,” she made no hint of meeting demands of the party’s left wing to abolish the Hartz IV welfare reform launched by former SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
It falls to Ms. Nahles to rescue Germany's oldest political party from irrelevance.
The coalition agreement with the Ms. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union and her Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, commits the SPD to a moderate, centrist program. But that program has been sharply criticized by members of the Jusos, the SPD’s youth organization that Ms. Nahles once led.
Simone Lange, a largely unknown rival candidate, did well to garner 27 percent of the vote, the first time anyone challenged in more than two decades. She appears to have won the support of many delegates unhappy with the SPD’s decision to continue an iteration of its coalition with the CDU.
Given the divisions within the party, Ms. Nahles, unlike her predecessor, Martin Schulz, was not expected to win an overwhelming majority in the rank and file. Mr. Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament, bagged 100 percent of the vote last year but resigned after less than one year in the job amid a revolt over his leadership. Nonetheless, her slim victory as party chair, the worst result of an SPD leader in more than 20 years, came as a surprise to many.
Senior party figures had hoped the change at the top would boost the party’s weak showing in the September election, when it won just 20.5 percent of the vote, a post-war low. But two new polls could dampen their spirits. Polls from Emnid and RTL/n-tv show support for the party now lagging at 18 percent. Even more disturbing for the party leadership: If Ms. Nahles were to run for the chancellorship today, she would garner just 13 percent of the vote, compared to Ms. Merkel at 50 percent, according to the TV station poll.
Ms. Nahles’ short, impassioned speech to delegates in January is credited with having sealed a vote to enter coalition talks after Mr. Schulz failed to rally the forces. Yet many worry whether the party can manage the balancing act — showing that it can govern while positioning itself as a dynamic, serious alternative to the CDU and CSU.
The new SPD leader has a powerful base of supporters within her parliamentary group and is building a power center outside the government. By choosing not to take a cabinet post, she has more freedom to challenge Merkel-led initiatives she opposes and to sharpen the party’s profile.
Yet the former labor minister, who pushed through Germany’s first-ever minimum wage in 2015 — a top SPD promise in 2013 — has earned Ms. Merkel’s respect. The chancellor views her party rival as a hard-working, detail-minded policymaker who stands by her political pledges. The two leaders are said to have developed a close relationship, despite their political and private differences. The chancellor is a physicist by training, raised a Lutheran in former East Germany; Ms. Nahles, a practicing Roman Catholic, has a degree in German literature and lives as a single mother with a young daughter in her home town Weiler in western Germany.
Martin Greive is a correspondent for Handelsblatt based in Berlin. Klaus Stratmann covers energy policy and politics for Handelsblatt in Berlin. John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org