When the exit polls first appeared on TV screens at the SPD headquarters on election night, there was some applause as the first predictions were read out – a disappointing result for Angela’s Merkel CDU/CSU bloc with a 9% drop in support since the last election.
But when the presenter read out the predicted results for the SPD (20-21%), they were met only with stunned silence. 90 minutes earlier, a meeting of the national executive committee under Martin Schulz had resolved that the SPD was to go into opposition, leaving Chancellor Merkel with no option besides an unprecedented “Jamaica coalition”.
After a lacklustre campaign void of any big controversy between the main parties, the superficial result seems boring too: Merkel has won a fourth term; her Christian Democrat / Christian Social Union came out on top (32.9%, down almost 9 points).
Yet the result represents a seismic shift in German post-war history – not even the reunification election in 1990 brought so many upsets. For the first time since 1953, the Bundestag will host six different parliamentary groups, and a right-wing populist party in the form of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD; 12.6%) will sit in the parliament for the first time since the war.
For the SPD, the result was equally historically grim. They achieved 20.5%, slumping 5.2% to their worst result since 1949. Like many social democratic parties around the world, the SPD’s traditional role as the predominant party of the centre-left is under existential threat.
The party has never performed strongly in Germany’s southern industrial powerhouse, Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg – home to almost 25 of 82 million Germans. Yet a result below 16% across the two states shows that their traditional unionised worker base has all but eroded. In the former East Germany, the SPD dropped to fourth place, receiving less than 14% of the vote and trailing behind the CDU, AfD and the socialist Left party. The party bled voters across all demographics. Even among those groups that form its traditional base, such as manual workers, pensioners and jobseekers, the party failed to retain more than a quarter of votes.
The refugee crisis was the elephant in the room at each rally over the course of the election campaign. Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders temporarily for all refugees in 2015 – at first with full and later less enthusiastic support from the SPD – alienated swathes of voters who are struggling financially or managing for the moment but worry about their future prospects. A vocal minority of almost six million former non-voters, as well as half a million former SPD-voters turned to the AfD.
Now, Chancellor Merkel faces the awkward task of bringing together her own CDU, the more conservative Bavarian CSU, the resurrected Liberals (FDP), and the flat-lining Greens into a “Jamaica coalition”, so called because the parties’ colours – black, yellow, green – make up those of the Jamaican flag. On some issues (migration, law and order, the environment), this will require the reconciliation of polar opposites. Doubts remain over whether this can be achieved: only optimists expect a new Merkel government to emerge before Christmas. The SPD has said it will not enter government under any circumstances, but this could be tested by any major external shocks.
After two four-year periods in a grand coalition under Merkel (2005-09 and 2013-17), the SPD is desperate for breathing space to regroup and regenerate. Former president of the European parliament, Martin Schulz, only took over as leader eight months ago and wants to stay on. Everything else will have to change though: as Schulz says, “we need a structural, organisational, programmatic and strategic new start.”
His partner in this task will be the newly-elected leader of the SPD parliamentary group, Andrea Nahles. A former head of the SPD’s leftwing faction, she has broadened her support in the last four years through her record as a successful, pragmatic minister for labour and social affairs, managing the smooth introduction of the national minimum wage.
Those SPD leaders whose careers were forged under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder will have to make way for a new, more female generation. But this is the easy part: the old model of constituency parties and full-time regional offices is moribund – some constituency parties have as few as three active members and regional offices can be incommunicado for days at a time. However, the party has gained more than 7,500 members since January, most of them joining online.
The party will need to refocus around big themes: income and wealth distribution, global migration, transforming the manufacturing base, digitisation and Germany’s role in Europe and the world. It must look beyond the lazy debates that dominate party meetings – “should we emulate Corbyn or Macron?” or “should we apologise for Schröder’s economic reforms?” It will need a narrative and policy offer that caters to those in insecure work but also to those who have done relatively well during the country’s economic upswing of the 2010s.
Strategically, the SPD will also have to look around for allies, as “Jamaica” (if it comes) will be fragile. Their traditional partner, the Greens are resigned to working with Merkel. The FDP has just re-entered the Bundestag and does not want to be seen as merely the CDU’s appendix – as it has been so many times since the 80s. And the Left party is torn between pursuing fundamentalist socialist change and piecemeal tinkering with German society and the economy. While debating their own party’s renewal, social democrats would be well advised to keep talking with these other parties.
A few days after a transformative election, Germany is grappling with a new political reality that is familiar in many other European states. The SPD is busy forming a new opposition leadership, while still acting as part of the current caretaker government and preparing for the next regional election in Lower Saxony on 15 October. Much of whether Schulz can hang on will depend on the party’s performance. Whoever has cause to celebrate that night we can be sure the SPD’s long road to renewal will take more than a four-year parliamentary term.