Germany has a new government, at last. After a turbulent process, the centre-right CDU/CSU and the centre-left SPD have agreed to form yet another ‘GroKo’ (grand coalition), something that was only possible following the SPD’s U-turn on an initial promise made on the eve of the election to act as the largest opposition party. A fortnight ago, party members gave the deal a green light in a ballot.
After the collapse of the SPD vote in September’s general election, members have initiated a controversial debate on how to renew the party. Other German centre-left parties – like the Greens – have made a fresh start after the general election: with a new party leader in Robert Habeck, they will be able to start a renewal process with a new political agenda. There is much potential for the two parties to work together and discuss future common initiatives, but the SPD is currently in a difficult situation and without a strong social democratic party, there is no possibility for a renewed centre-left coalition.
In polls immediately preceding the membership ballot it was clear the SPD faces a serious dilemma: the majority of Germans think the party has the right political solutions for our times but, at the same time, most believe the SPD is not fit for government. This lack of confidence in social democratic politics is part of a persistent trend in Germany over recent decades. Across the board, the European centre left is losing elections to parties of the right and the far left, with no one presenting a good example of how to escape this electoral trap. A serious rethink will be necessary to give the SPD the reboot it needs.
Crucially, significant EU reform will be needed to stem the rising tide of populist politics in Germany. The SPD has made this a priority in the coalition negotiations, with EU reform featuring prominently in the coalition treaty as a strong signal to Germany’s closest ally – France – and its energetic, ambitious president. Defending social democratic values across the continent and social issues playing a key role in future European reforms seem more likely with the SPD holding critical portfolios in the government. In the finance ministry, Olaf Scholz will not only be responsible for allocating national resources, but will also act as a strong voice in Brussels in negotiating a post-Brexit budget and encouraging eurozone reforms. Equally important will be Heiko Maas, who has a delicate task as the new foreign secretary. He must close the rift between northern and southern members of the eurozone, following Wolfgang Schäuble’s accusations that the latter were spending too much (of mostly German taxpayers’) money. There must be an end to this finger-pointing. As Bruno Le Maire recently put it, ‘everyone has made or is making efforts, so let’s move on’. A stronger, more unified Europe can be part of the answer to the populist challenge in Germany, but whether EU reforms actually materialise will largely depend on Merkel’s successor as CDU general secretary, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. If she gives in to the pressures of the hard right within the CDU/CSU in an attempt to fend off the populist AfD, EU reform may remain a social democratic dream.
In addition to the European challenge, to make an electoral comeback, German social democrats must overcome five key challenges.
First, they must regain the confidence of voters and party members, who have expressed their discontent with the SPD over recent months. They turned their back on a party whose political message was vague and unclear. This can partly be traced back to the legacy of the SPD-Green government at the turn of the millennium, when Gerhard Schröder undertook a series of labour market and social reforms that failed to resonate with the party’s traditional voters. If the SPD is to have a solid comeback, the party must address the internal traumas of the past. It will need to clear the decks and develop a more confident, forward-looking vision for a better and fairer society. This will need to include a solid plan to lessen wealth inequality and improve social mobility, two areas where social democrats have lacked profile recently.
Second, the party must continue to renew its personnel and promote diversity. In a democracy dominated by the media, party renewal is largely judged by the personalities dominating the political stage. Fresh faces will be crucial to improve the party’s image and halt the electoral downward trajectory. The new SPD cabinet members are younger and half are women, but the group still lacks diversity. No minister comes from a migrant background and only one is from the former East Germany. The party has a unique opportunity to empower over 24,000 mostly young members who joined in 2018 – but it needs the right organisational structure to do so, with new forms of participation. One idea advocated by the reform group SPD++ is to implement a youth quota, guaranteeing a bigger say for young people on the party’s boards and committees.
Third, the SPD must develop new policy ideas, with a clear sense of direction. Over recent years, the party has lost profile and, with it, many votes. Most Germans do not know what it stands for anymore. Both the SPD and CDU/CSU face similar challenges as the catch-all parties of the centre. They must find an answer to the nationalist populist of the AfD and their main task is to develop answers for people’s everyday worries. Now is the time for big ideas for regulating digital capitalism, how best to cope with structural change and the negative effects of globalisation, a response to tackle the pressures of an ageing population, and a positive migration agenda.
Fourth, the party must strengthen its campaign machine. In eastern and southern Germany, the SPD has major structural problems with areas totally lacking in party organisation. Meanwhile, with a loss of trust in SPD politics, the party finds it hard to recruit campaign volunteers across the country. A key part of renewal must involve establishing new structures in these ‘lost regions’. The SPD will need to reconnect with traditional partners like trade unions and established civil society groups, working with these organisations to develop common positions and make it clear co-operation will result in a win-win situation.
Finally, the party must establish new forms of communication – merely re-establishing old ties cannot be the whole answer. Social democrats need to establish dialogues with the new players in civil society and – even more importantly – with ‘normal’ people. Due to a loss of campaigning power, the SPD has lost contact with many social groups. Establishing new party offices in the former heartland regions will have to be part of a strategy to reconnect.
By the end of April, it is likely Andrea Nahles will take over as party leader. She will be the first female leader in the SPD’s history, sharing the office with Olaf Scholz, who is to become finance minister. Together they have access to a strong network and the ability to build a robust alliance. Their main task is to do a solid job in government and address these five key challenges facing the party. The SPD has the chance regain power by emphasising the ‘bread-and-butter’ issues of citizens’ daily lives, reaching out to former social democratic voters as well as new interest groups, and establishing new participatory structures within the party.