Germany’s Social Democrats: where did it all go wrong?

EPA/Sascha Steinbach

Germany’s Social Democrats: where did it all go wrong?

In March 2017, Martin Schulz was announced, with great fanfare, as the new leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD). As the party’s candidate for chancellor, “Saint Martin” was set to storm the 2017 elections, oust Angela Merkel and bring the SPD back to power.

Twelve short months later, the SPD’s dreams lie in tatters. Its 20% vote share in the September vote was its lowest ever in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. After the election, Schulz committed the party to an opposition role as a point of principle, rather than entering another coalition with Merkel’s CDU.

However, when the CDU failed to form an alternative coalition with two smaller parties, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier persuaded Schulz to backtrack on that commitment in the interests of political stability and to work with Merkel on a new “GroKo” (grand coalition). The SPD’s U-turn on the GroKo was felt by many in the party as a betrayal. Since then the SPD’s leadership has imploded, its Young Socialists (Jusos) group has mutinied and the party has been widely ridiculed in the press. Where did it all go so horribly wrong?

Social Democrats in the doldrums

In many ways, the downturn in the German SPD’s fortunes mirrors the fate of similar parties elsewhere in Europe. Structural changes in European economies and societies have played out badly for social democrats in general.

A decline in manufacturing in favour of an expanding services sector has undermined social democratic parties’ traditional voting “clienteles”. Globalisation and the progressive liberalisation of employment markets have weakened the collective power of labour, traditionally the bedrock of parties of the left in European countries.

The emergence of the gig economy and the trend towards casual labour are resulting in a workforce with fragmented, often conflicting interests. European social democrats have generally failed to keep up with the changing concerns of low-income workers –- and the German SPD has been no exception.

The rise and fall of Martin Schulz

Schulz’s dynamic approach and self-styled image as an establishment “outsider” was hoped to spark a fresh connection with the German electorate. But this persona ultimately worked against him. Most of Germany’s party leaders have built a public profile as government ministers at federal level. In contrast, Schulz had forged his political career largely at the European level. His only notable political post in Germany had been as a small-town mayor. As such, he was virtually unknown to the German public. Compared with Merkel – a high-profile national and international leader – Schulz was the invisible man. The “Schulz effect” failed to deliver in key regional elections in Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia, leaving the SPD struggling to reignite its federal campaign.

Young SPD members protest the grand coalition. EPA

Worse, Schulz seemed to lack political sense. He boxed himself in with points of principle in the fluid political situation after the election, only to have to retract them later. Having claimed he would never serve in a Merkel government, he later angled for the top job of foreign minister in the new cabinet. His credibility was fatally undermined. His vacillations ultimately contributed to his resignation as party leader.

You emotional bread roll!

The deep divisions in the SPD over leadership and policy added to the party’s woes. These came to the fore during the GroKo negotiations. Tensions between Schulz and the current foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, exploded in a playground spat when Gabriel, quoting his little daughter Marie, called Schulz “the man with the hairy face”. Schulz retaliated by calling Gabriel an “Emotionsbrötchen”. Literally an “emotional bread roll”, the unflattering term carried shades of “big girl’s blouse” and “drama queen”.

The row has done nothing for the party’s public image. A recent opinion poll showed that 58% of respondents believed the SPD was no longer fit for government. In spite of its record allocation of ministerial posts, the SPD will enter the new coalition as a weakened force. The designated minister for the Home ministry, the Christian Social Union politician Horst Seehofer, has already exploited the situation by engineering the transfer of construction policy from the SPD’s environment portfolio to his own.

Schulz’s failure has highlighted the need for a generational change in the SPD’s leading elites. The top-down designation of Schulz’s deputy Andrea Nahles (47) as the new leader ignores the Jusos’ demands for greater transparency and democracy within the party.

Inevitably, the coalition agreement between Merkel and the SPD focuses on those issues on which there is the greatest agreement between the coalition partners. These included minor reforms to the health service to smooth out the worst inequalities and gaps in provision, a focus on digital modernisation and some minor measures to assuage Germany’s emerging housing crisis. These policy guidelines fall far short of the root-and-branch reform that SPD members had hoped for in health and housing.

The new GroKo only cements the SPD’s long-standing problem in forging a policy identity both independent of the CDU and meaningful to a new, stable cohort of voters. To achieve this, it needs to address some of the leading concerns of the working poor in Germany: low pay rates, a long overdue pensions reform; equal access to health services; reform of the education sector; and the entry and integration of immigrants.

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