Andrea Nahles was elected the first female leader of the German Social Democratic party (SPD) on April 22, in a special party conference held in Wiesbaden. But her win was less than convincing. She took only 66% of the vote against a leftwing, anti ‘party establishment’ outsider, Simon Lange, in what should have been a sweeping victory. It was the second lowest vote an SPD party leader has received in the postwar era, and a clear warning to the leadership.
The role of SPD leader has been described by one newspaper, the Tagesspiegel, as ‘the most difficult job in German politics’. It’s easy to see why. Not only did the SPD sink to a historic low in Germany’s September general election, winning just 153 seats in a parliament of 709, its position in east Germany is so weak that the very existence of the party is under threat. The SPD came fourth in four of the five east German states, behind Angela Merkel’s CDU, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Left Party. The AfD is performing strongly in the east, even managing to place first in Saxony.
Since the election, the SPD has sunk even lower in the national polls, currently hovering around 18%. And the party’s recent performance is not a blip. The SPD has consistently performed poorly over the last decade, receiving only 23% of the vote in 2009 and 25.7% in 2013.
The buzzword in the party, therefore, is renewal. The SPD must re-establish a clear social democratic identity. But many people are not convinced that Nahles can or will deliver the promised #SPDrenewal especially now that the party has entered into a new coalition with Angela Merkel.
Before the 600 delegates voted on Sunday, it was reported that the party would regard a vote of 80% or above for Nahles as a clear mandate for her leadership. Anything under 70%, they said, and Nahles’ position would be questionable.
So where does this leave Nahles?
Nahles tends to polarise opinion, with a reputation for being argumentative, over-the-top, and sometimes shocking in her use of language. However, she is without doubt an influential, well-connected and experienced politician, known for her passion and ability to get things done. She rose to prominence, as many key social democrats do, as leader of the youth wing Jusos. Since then she has served as general secretary of the party and was minister for labour and social affairs in the last government, when she was responsible for introducing the minimum wage.
Nahles has promised a major renewal process for the party. This will include a wide-ranging consultative process, the results of which are due to be presented at the party conference at the end of 2019, focusing on four themes: growth and prosperity, the future of work, the welfare state and Germany’s role in the world.
However, a national poll just before the leadership election, found that only a third of the German public thought that she would strengthen the party and only half of party members trusted her to do so.
Her speech to the leadership conference clearly addressed the challenge posed by the far-right AfD, appealing to Germans to ‘stand with us against rightwing populism’. She argued solidarity is what is most lacking in this ‘globalised, neoliberal, turbo-digitalised world’, contrasting this to the AfD offer by saying, if you believe the populists represent the people, ‘watch out… we know nothing good can come of this’.
But the speech was not universally well received, regarded in some quarters as short on both policy and strategy, with the Spiegel’s headline comment: #SPDnotrenewable.
One major reason behind doubts that Nahles can deliver renewal for the SPD is the fact that the party once again finds itself in a coalition government. Party members were deeply sceptical about this decision but at a party conference in January to debate the issue, Nahles gave a barnstorming speech that helped sway the vote in favour. She appealed to the conference not to let voters down, speaking of the big changes the party can make to people’s lives from in government. And it is fair to say that, given the low vote share the party received in the September, the SPD now has disproportionate influence in government, holding the key positions in the ministries of finance, foreign affairs and labour and social affairs.
On Sunday, Nahles promised ‘you can renew a party while governing, and I am going to prove this from tomorrow’. But many members disagree. They think the party can only be renewed in opposition. In coalition the line between the Social Democrats and Merkel’s Conservatives become blurred. Her critics are also concerned about Nahles holding two key posts – party leader and leader of the party in parliament. How, they ask, can she kick start a process of renewal while also carrying out government business? Lange, her opponent, has argued that by holding these two key positions she is creating an undemocratic centre of power.
This criticism illustrates another major problem the new leader faces: the growing divide between the party establishment and the grassroots members – a divide that was exposed during discussions about the coalition. A grassroots movement, in the style of the UK Labour party’s Momentum group, was organised against the coalition by the leader of the youth wing Jusos. A full third of party members voted against joining the government – just as almost a third voted for Lange as party leader. Lange’s challenge to Nahles was significant in laying this divide bare, giving voice to those unhappy with the direction of the party.
In contrast to Nahles, Lange offered the membership a leftwing agenda focused on increasing the power of the party grassroots, including in leadership elections – an experience that might resonate with that of the British Labour party. In her speech on Sunday, Lange spoke of the need to collectively fight against unbridled capitalism, to deliver social justice and break out of the ‘vicious circle of the erosion of our political values’. She called for a new culture of debate within the SPD and for the party to work to end poverty, not least through pledging to overturn Gerhard Schröder’s controversial 2005 Hartz IV welfare reforms – something that Nahles has refused to commit to.
An article in Frankfurter Rundschau this weekend argued that a vote for Nahles was a vote for ‘no change’. It seems that many in the party agreed.