Circling the drain

After Hesse, a gloomy outlook for Germany’s SPD

Nahles stellt Agenda-Reformplan vor
Quo vadis? Source: DPA

While the world wonders how much longer Chancellor Angela Merkel can hold onto power, Germany’s oldest political party and its historic bulwark against fascism is slowly but surely sinking into oblivion.

Historically one of the two mainstream parties vying for power, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) is now slipping behind the Greens environmental party as the second-strongest political force in the country.

A persistent lack of ideas and an even more telling lack of charismatic leadership has reduced the party of Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt to a shadow of its former self.

No-one took responsibility for electoral disaster

In the Hesse state election on Sunday, the SPD lost 11 percentage points from its 2013 result to sink below 20 percent, winning 94 fewer votes than the Greens in a state where they held a majority for years because of the strong trade union presence.

The left wing of the party, led by the Young Socialists (Jusos) chief Kevin Kühnert, is calling for the party leadership to resign en masse. Party chair Andrea Nahles, one of Kühnert’s predecessors at Jusos, sees no need for personnel changes.

Once again, in the party’s view, the electoral debacle was nobody’s fault — not Ms. Nahles, not the SPD standard-bearer Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel, not Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, vice chancellor in a national government that voters in two states rejected wholesale.

With a full-scale revolt brimming at the surface, the SPD leadership clearly has lost control of the party base. Their answer is to put up yet another roadmap with deadlines for legislation the party wants to achieve in the coalition, and yet another initiative to upgrade the party’s platform for the future.

Merkel successfully co-opted SPD’s ideas

Ms. Nahles herself was active in the Jusos, who tend to be on the left of the party, for 11 years from the age of 18. The former SPD chair Oskar Lafontaine once called her God’s gift to the SPD.

Later, Mr. Lafontaine, one of the many SPD candidates who lost to longtime Chancellor Helmut Kohl, led a splinter group of the SPD to join with the former East German Communist Party as the Left, a more radical group.

Ms. Nahles remains marked by her leftist Jusos background. But she is leading an SPD permanently compromised by its long years in a grand coalition with Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats, while her own centralizing tendency hasn’t helped. While some CDU members complain about the chancellor’s turning their party into Social Democrats, it is the SPD that has lost the most in this process.

Desperately seeking charisma

She has yet to evidence sufficient charisma to return the SPD to power. In fact, the SPD bench is looking fairly empty. Mr. Scholz was a vote-getter as mayor of Hamburg, but his dour Hanseatic demeanor does not play well in the rest of Germany. There is no youthful equivalent of Austria’s Sebastian Kurz or France’s Emmanuel Macron on the horizon.

Nor does the SPD have any ideas or projects to capture voters’ imagination. Ms. Merkel has co-opted too many of their centrist ideas to leave them with anything but some marginal improvements on the left.

Ms. Merkel’s critics increasingly are blaming her for the downfall of the CDU but they should give her credit for the demise of the SPD at the same time.

The duopoly of CDU and SPD has functioned well for most of Germany’s postwar history, with a small FDP able to play kingmaker between the two mainstream parties. The country has no practice with a multiparty system like the one that is emerging from state and national elections, requiring coalitions of three or four parties instead of just two.

In this environment, the SPD seems unlikely to return as a mainstream force. At the rate it’s going, it will be lucky to remain a political force at all.

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Martin Greive covers politics for Handelsblatt in Berlin. Darrell Delamaide, a Washington, DC-based editor for Handelsblatt Global, adapted this article into English. To contact the author: greive@handelsblatt.com.

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