What is the SPD up to now?

Europe’s oldest social-democratic party has been in chaos in recent months. This author thinks that could be for the better.

One might be forgiven for thinking that the last nine months saw the full-scale trouncing of social democracy’s left wing, with myriad heartbroken supporters still smarting from the electoral defeats of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. It would seem that the desire to re-explore more radical, pre-1980s programmes of social reorganization has given way to a return to pragmatism and to policy positions much closer to the center. That might be true of Anglo-America, but I want to argue that Germany’s SPD is gearing up for a Sonderweg.

Such a claim might seem baffling in light of the party’s recent nomination of Olaf Scholz, Germany’s current Finance Minister and Hamburg’s former mayor, as its candidate for the 2021 general election. The man himself is not obviously inspiring. He is a member of the old guard, having served as Labour Minister as early as 2007. In interviews, he answers questions with run-on sentences, formulaic phrasings and overused tropes. His Hanseatic background is reflected in his long romance with neoliberal economic policies (some to his left call him “Olaf Schäuble” in reference to his CDU predecessor as Finance Minister). Why, then, select a familiar face from the party’s right wing to signal a palingenetic shift to the left? The answer lies in the details and requires historical context.

The longue durée

Tracing the SPD’s ideological split back to a definite origin is a punishing task. One could point to the abandonment of more traditional socialist aims in the Godesberg Programme of 1959, or to the pragmatic lib-lab coalitions of Willi Brandt and Helmut Schmidt in the 1970s and early 80s. A definitive break occurred during the Chancellorship of Gerhard Schröder, who is often classed with Tony Blair and Bill Clinton as third-way reformer with a neoliberal edge. Schröder’s liberalization of the German labour market alienated much of the SPD’s left wing, including former Finance Minister Oskar Lafontaine, who soon gave up his membership entirely. Following a brief stint as head of his own party, Lafontaine eventually merged his company with what remained of the GDR’s Socialist Unity Party to form Die Linke (‘The Left’). The SPD has never really recovered from this split and has hemorrhaged votes to its further-left competitor ever since.

The prospect of a red-green coalition, such as the one which brought Schröder to power, was effectively replaced with that of a red-red-green coalition including Die Linke, since that party has consistently drawn a dearly needed 10-or-so percent of the vote at the federal level. Yet doing so was anathema as long as the party’s historical roots remained visible and its positions uncompromising – especially with the staunchly anticommunist CDU providing eager invigilation. This put the SPD in the unenviable position of having to join two grand coalitions (2005-09, 2013-17) as junior partner (an intermezzo in the opposition did not prove lucrative). As a consequence, the party has been unable to move away from Schröder’s increasingly unpopular centrist positions, all the while being stripped of original positions and slowly suffocated by a lethal Merkelian embrace.

How did we get here? The conflict’s recent history

The resulting discontent burst to the fore in 2018, when a third grand coalition became a realistic prospect after the CDU’s failed attempt to form a government with the Greens and the Free Democrats. The electoral foundering of Martin Schulz, the SPD’s most recent candidate for chancellor, had shown that personal charisma could not compensate for a lack of programmatic clarity – one which the party left feared would persist if a third grand coalition were indeed agreed upon. This concern was articulated most vocally by the Young Socialists, who on this occasion showed themselves to be more than just the party-internal ‘controlled opposition’ which youth organizations often constitute. At the SPD’s 2018 special party congress, Kevin Kühnert, the Young Socialists’ chairman, gave an impassioned speech against the prospect of yet another grand coalition. Two-thirds ultimately voted in favour of such a government, but the opposing camp had nonetheless managed to consolidate itself as a legitimate countervailing current in the party.

Kühnert is a complex and polarizing figure. He has shown himself both idealistic (in an infamous interview with Die Zeit, he claimed that collectivizing BMW was not off the table for him) and a pragmatist. He is openly gay, but tends to emphasize class- over identity-politics. Despite not graduating University (something tabloids and unimaginative critics are keen to point out), he is well-informed and an intellectual. He is also a fierce debater and perhaps the most rhetorically skilled member of his party’s upper echelons. Less advantageous are his age (at 31 years, he is considered by many Germans as unfit for office), his lack of electoral experience (something he himself has conceded but hopes to rectify by running for a seat in the Bundestag in 2021), and the fact that much of his base might give way should he show himself too compromising.

Where are we now? The conflict’s present state

The vote for a grand coalition marked only a temporary truce within the SPD. Much of the party’s leadership had engaged in mutual destruction during the squabble over ministerial positions in the coalition government – this was the fate of Martin Schulz and Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s previous big men. In Summer of 2019, Andrea Nahles, one of the SPD’s few remaining high-profile members, resigned from her position as leader due to burnout and constant intrigue. During the ensuing leadership election, the old divisions flared up once more. Together with the Brandenburg politician Clara Geywitz, Olaf Scholz entered the race as the frontrunner and strong favorite. Yet the course of continuity for which their campaign stood was soon assailed from all directions by mushrooming challengers from the party’s lower ranks. Norbert Walter-Borjans, the former Finance Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, and Saskia Esken, a backbencher from the party’s left wing, earned Kühnert’s endorsement and went on to win an upset victory in November 2019, in no small part thanks to the youth vote. This left the party in something of an awkward state: led by two relatively inexperienced left-wingers, its ministerial posts were held entirely by centrists, with Scholz occupying the most important position as Finance Minister.

All the more inopportune was the impact of the Covid-19 epidemic. While Angela Merkel’s ever-so-calm crisis management saw the CDU’s poll numbers shoot up to 38 percent, Scholz, busily delivering stimulus and relief packages, was seen as no longer representative of the SPD and thus conferred no similar benefits. The Media’s overwhelming focus on the pandemic meant that the new leadership remained relatively obscure, apart from occasional gaffs. Borjans, the more introverted of the two, has received next to no publicity. Esken, meanwhile, has courted some segments of the youth but alienated wider swathes of the overall electorate through her prolific, and often haphazard, social media use. While much of the duo’s support was likely due to Kühnert’s endorsement, neither of its members seem to have his political instincts or charisma.

Where do we go from here? The conflict’s synthesis

This week’s announcement that Scholz will be standing as the SPD’s candidate for chancellor has been divisive. Much of the party left views it as a betrayal (“I voted against Scholz in November and yet I get him forced upon me all the same!”). It should not, however, be forgotten that his candidacy will be organized and driven by a party with a much more left-wing leadership than Scholz would have provided. In a recent interview, Esken spoke in glowing terms of her enthusiasm for a red-red-green coalition. Scholz has been less committal, but is clearly open to the possibility as well. In that context, Scholz’s experience and recognizability could sweeten the pill of such a coalition for the broader population and at the same time make sure that it is remembered as a precedent worthy of emulation in years to come. The party’s left wing needs time to bring forth heavy-hitting political animals (such as Kühnert) to rival those produced over the past decade by the Schröderian right; the electable Scholz could bridge the temporal gap this will require. Moreover, extending a friendly hand to the party right should prove less destructive than trying to shed the whole wing and hence descending into self-destructive internal quarrels.

Willingness to do all this is only a first step, however. According to current polls, the three progressive parties will have to gain ten percentage points between them to obtain the necessary majority for a red-red-green coalition. The SPD will have to try to win votes back from the CDU, a task to which Olaf Scholz is best suited. Die Linke will have to be more compromising in its demands and focus on winning back seats from its right-populist competition, the odious Alternative for Germany. The Greens will have to commit to the idea of a progressive coalition, rather than flirting with the CDU (a risk this writer thinks the party should take, since moderate conservative voters, however useful electorally, aren’t the party’s back bone, and because the CDU hasn’t proven very amenable to more stringent environmental protection measures, a pressing issue among young voters). But much can happen in the twelve months leading up to the election, especially in times like these. And, perhaps most importantly, progressives will not be facing off against Angela Merkel this time around.