With state elections approaching this Sunday, progressives look to Germany’s social democrats for hope of a left-wing revival, write Metin Hakverdi and Simon Vaut
‘The report of my death has been greatly exaggerated.’ The words of Mark Twain may aptly characterise the feelings of chancellor Angela Merkel. For several weeks, political pundits have predicted the biggest political earthquake to hit Germany in a generation: the collapse of the centre-right coalition between the Christian Democrat Union and its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union. German political expert Alexander Görlach described the situation saying: ‘what seems to be a minor disagreement over asylum law between chancellor Merkel of the CDU and Horst Seehofer, the interior minister and head of the CSU, in fact exposes a growing rift between a national party trying to hold down the centre and a powerful regional party drifting to the right.’
A plausible scenario is that the trend of decline of established conservative and social democratic parties could continue in the European parliament elections
Alas, Merkel, once again, managed to consolidate her power – at least in the short run. Whether the divided conservative political landscape can manage this divide in the long run remains to be seen. The CDU and CSU are divided on three major European issues: immigration, in particular refugees; the handling of authoritarian regimes like Hungary; and the fiscal policy in the eurozone.
In 2019 these issues will further divide Germany’s centre-right. A plausible scenario is that the trend of decline of established conservative and social democratic parties could continue in the European parliament elections. In this case, Merkel would remain reluctant to make political compromises regarding Brexit as she needs all the political capital that she could muster on the home front. She would unlikely want to squander further energy on a United Kingdom that may be considered a lost cause for the European Union at this point.
All hope is not lost, however, thanks to a long-term strategy of the new SPD leadership from within in the government
The European elections in May 2019 will likely continue to weaken the political centre in the European parliament, which will further complicate decision making in Brussels. This would feed a vicious cycle of political division that will make it even more difficult for Merkel to govern in Berlin with her divided party.
Meanwhile, the German Social Democratic party has reluctantly entered into yet another grand coalition. The party still has yet to recover from their historic loss in September 2017 and will most likely suffer further losses in upcoming German state elections.
All hope is not lost, however, thanks to a long-term strategy of the new SPD leadership from within in the government of vice-chancellor and finance minister Olaf Scholz and party leader Andrea Nahles. Based on a candid 150 page self-evaluation on the party’s mistakes, the SPD is setting a new course. Labour’s sister party is poised to take a political leadership role is in modernising communications in the digital age – a cornerstone project of the dynamic secretary general Lars Klingbeil, a digital native. This is vital because political communication has remained an achilles heel for the SPD in the recent past. New online tools will provide greater opportunities for participation for new party members who are hungry for more say in how the party organises, strategises and governs.
The SPD is traditionally a pro-European party and more willing to compromise for the sake of a united Europe, which is demonstrated in their position on Brexit
Scholz is the new point man in the SPD and currently leads in the polls as Germany’s most trusted politician. He is a pragmatic centre-leftist, cut from a different cloth to Jeremy Corbyn. The main challenge facing Scholz and Nahles is to lead a party that is currently lacking in self-confidence.
The SPD is traditionally a pro-European party and more willing to compromise for the sake of a united Europe, which is demonstrated in their position on Brexit. This position has a long history dating back to the 1925 SPD manifesto that called for a ‘United States of Europe’. This is a political tradition that has remained consistent and for which the SPD should be proud.
After nearly 13 years as German chancellor and Europe’s most powerful politician, most observers expect Merkel to step aside within the next two years, to allow her successor to lead the government into the next federal election, which is scheduled for 2021. Aside from establishing their own profile and credibility before a restless German electorate, Merkel’s successor will face a major challenge simply holding the deeply fractured CDU-CSU conservative alliance together. This situation would be a major game changer in German politics and would represent a tremendous opportunity for the SPD to regain ascendancy in German politics.
Metin Hakverdi is a member of the German parliament and Social Democratic party spokesperson on Brexit and Simon Vaut is board member of thinktank Das Progressive Zentrum
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