The SPD: helping the political pendulum back towards the left in Germany


Europe, world politics

Author(s):  Jon Worth
Published date:  08 Dec 2011
Source:  IPPR

The Bundesparteitag (party conference) of the German Social Democrats (SPD) took place this week in Berlin. I attended as an international guest with one major question in mind: having lost in 2009, how well is the SPD rebuilding process going, and is the party on track to regain power at the next Bundestagswahl (federal election) scheduled for September 2013? With the left in the UK having suffered a similar fate in 2010 there are some parallels.

The challenge facing the SPD in the autumn of 2009 after the previous Bundestagswahl was of major proportions. The party polled just 23.0 per cent, down 11.2 points, the biggest percentage loss for any party in German election history. Although Merkel's CDU polled slightly lower than in 2005, the strength of the free-market FDP allowed a Black–Yellow coalition in Berlin. The SPD was out of power for the first time for three legislative periods, victim of being the junior party in a grand coalition and still tainted by the pain of the Hartz IV reforms.

At the SPD party conference in 2009, held just a couple of months after the major election defeat, the party elected a new leadership team to help get the party back on its feet. Sigmar Gabriel replaced Franz Müntefering as the new party chairman, with Andrea Nahles chosen as general secretary. This choice was not uncontroversial at the time, being interpreted as a shift leftwards by the party, and even now Gabriel is a divisive figure. These appointments however demonstrated that the party had started to move on, to look to the future. While Gabriel had been a minister in the outgoing administration, he was not implicated in the Schröder era.

Germany's federal political system further assists a party's rebuilding process, with elections in the sixteen Länder (states) taking place periodically. The position of Ministerpräsident (prime minister) of a Land gives that individual a national political profile, while the representation of the Länder in the Bundesrat (second chamber) at federal level in Berlin makes these elections significant for the conduct of national politics. As many of the speeches at the SPD party conference this week were keen to point out, the SPD has 'won' in each of the state elections to date.

The reality is a bit more complicated, and is worth examining. The major gains for the SPD have been seen in Nordrhein-Westfalen – the most populous state, where Hannelore Kraft's minority administration with the Greens ousted the CDU in May 2010 – and in Hamburg, where Olaf Scholz achieved an absolute majority. In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and in Bremen, the SPD strengthened its position in governing coalitions, while in Baden-Württemberg the SPD's vote share declined but the Greens rose sufficiently to allow a Red–Green administration to take office for the first time in Stuttgart. In Berlin and Rheinland-Pfalz, the SPD remained the largest party and governing coalitions but lost vote share. In Sachsen-Anhalt the SPD gained but remains the minor party in a grand coalition with the SPD.

These elections not only confirm that the electoral trends for the SPD are not universally positive but also underline the challenge posed by the fracturing of the vote on the left. While in his Berlin speech this week Gabriel was keen to underline that a coalition nationally with the Greens would be the SPD's favoured election outcome in 2013, Klaus Wowereit and the SPD in Berlin nevertheless found it easier to work with the CDU there instead. Meanwhile, the rise of the Pirate Party and the chance this new party polls enters the Bundestag for the first time cannot be ruled out.

These electoral advances helped set the tone for the SPD Bundesparteitag where the atmosphere was cheery, optimistic and almost bullish. The scene was set at the start with a notable speech from the 93-year-old former Kanzler (chancellor) Helmut Schmidt (more about his speech here) who made a strong appeal for the enduring role of Germany in the EU. Neither an EU run by Germany nor Germany turning its back on the EU are desirable, he said. Schmidt's theme was developed further by former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, declaring that the SPD is Germany's European party. Here was a party conscious of its ideology and not bending in the face of public opinion. A stronger but yet more democratic EU was repeatedly cited as the way forward.

In stark contrast to UK party conferences, the SPD event is free to attend as a guest and delegates retain a real say over party policy, most notably agreeing to a new taxation policy for the party – instigated by Peer Steinbrück – that will raise income tax from 42 per cent to 49 per cent if the SPD wins in 2013. With 10,000 new members recruited since 2009, the party internally is in good health. Meanwhile, the presence of companies such as Audi and Air Berlin in the exhibition halls is testimony to the enduring relevance of the party.

The biggest issue of all for the SPD in 2013 is, however, something that was not on the agenda in Berlin this week and will only be decided 12 months from now: who is going to be the SPD's candidate for Bundeskanzler? Such a question is not even asked in UK politics, where party leaders automatically end up as PM. Yet the SPD has three and possibly even four viable candidates – Steinbrück, Steinmeier, Gabriel and possibly Kraft.

The opinion polls suggest Peer Steinbrück would look to be the best bet. On the pragmatic right of the SPD and respected as a former finance minister through the start of the financial crisis in 2008, he nevertheless lacks a supporter base in the party and his disjointed speech was greeted with only lukewarm applause in Berlin.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier would be a compromise candidate. A rather colourless figure, he is trustworthy and experienced, and his angry speech in Berlin was more to the liking of the party faithful than Steinbrück's. However it was Steinmeier who was the SPD's candidate in the 2009 defeat – dare they put forward for the same candidate again?

If the candidacy were to be decided by speeches alone then Sigmar Gabriel would be a cert. Sometimes serious, sometimes funny, sometimes angry, his well-crafted tour de force had the packed hall whooping with joy and applauding with heart. The standing ovation he received was genuine. We are the Mitte (literally 'middle', but politically centre ground) but we need to move that centre leftwards, he said, trying to allay the fear expressed to me by a number of those present that he is too lefty and populist.

The outsider nevertheless gaining ground is Hannelore Kraft. More charismatic than Steinmeier and yet more responsible than Gabriel, the Ministerpräsident of Nordrhein-Westfalen would not be the first to make the leap from Land politics to the national level: Gerhard Schröder took the same route to power in 1998.

For the moment the SPD – rightly in my view – does not seem to mind about sitting on the candidate issue. After all, the party is reasonably united in its political approach. Yet somewhere there is a nagging concern. Is this return to sensible, values-based social democracy actually going to be enough? It is as if the party feels the pendulum is starting to swing back its way, with Merkel's coalition partners the FDP crashing in the polls and the market-induced problems in the eurozone pushing people to vote for the SPD and their possible coalition partners. It is as if they think a small nudge of the pendulum is all they need.

While it is clear that the SPD once more has a spring in its step, and has largely moved on from the travails of its time in government, it is still far from a foregone conclusion that it can land the top job in German politics in 2013.