The Social Democrat Dilemma
Germany’s Social Democrats are frustrated. Aside from being down in the polls behind Chancellor Merkel and the CDU/CSU, they seem to be plagued by some unfortunately timed incidents that will nag them in the final weeks of the election campaign. The recent collapse of an SPD-Green coalition government in Lower Saxony after a member of the Green Party threw her support to the CDU is a bad omen for that coalition on a national level. In addition, the minister-president has been caught up in a news story about a speech regarding Volkswagen which was allegedly vetted by the company. He denies the accusation but both events are combining to push him out of office in the special state elections scheduled now in mid-October. While that is three weeks after the national elections, it cannot avoid being caught up in the current campaigns of the CDU and CSU to give Merkel a fourth term in another coalition government.
Another vulnerable target is the rumor that former SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder was reportedly offered a position on the board of Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil company—and one in which the Kremlin also holds a controlling stake. Schröder had already been working in energy firms owned by the Russian-government-controlled energy company Gazprom. And this is just at a time when there is a concern that there will be Russian meddling in the German elections as there was in the U.S. last year.
Just a few months ago, there was a good deal more enthusiasm about the chances for the SPD to defeat arch rival Angela Merkel. SPD candidate Martin Schulz was introduced as the person to defeat her—but first he also had to be introduced to the voters. After a long and successful career in the EU, Schulz was drafted to do battle with a three-term chancellor who he believes has overstayed her reign. As the normal route to a candidacy for chancellor runs through prior state or federal government office, Schulz was a lateral entry and not as well known.
But the new SPD messenger—and the message—has lost some altitude in the interim. The Social Democratic campaign is built around cornerstone domestic issues: education, infrastructure investments, job training, and tax relief. That is certainly where the voters’ concerns are.
Yet despite that, the SPD lost in three straight state elections this year—a warning sign about September and their ability to make their case persuasively.
It is not that the SPD does not have a strong foundation on which to build. The party is currently leading seven of the sixteen state government coalitions and partners in another four. The SPD is also strong at the level of major cities in Germany where it holds the mayor’s office in Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, Dortmund, Leipzig, and Nuremberg. No small feat.
But static traction in the polls is perhaps part of a larger trend impacting left-of-center parties like the Social Democrats. Two decades ago it seemed that these parties were in full victory swings in Europe. Tony Blair in the UK and Gerhard Schröder in Germany celebrated what was then called the “New Middle” of politics—between the extreme left and right.
But during the past decade they lost ground, in particular after the global recession when the championing of globalization began to ring hollow to those who saw no upsides for themselves emerging. Indeed, the core base of the SPD was already starting to melt as the traditional manufacturing sector lost ground. Welfare reforms pushed through during Schröder’s tenure caused many Social Democratic voters to become further disenchanted with the party.
All political parties are struggling to define their messages to sustain themselves in an increasingly volatile environment riven by the centrifugal forces of the changing economic environment impacting the job market, uncertainties in government policy directions, and fear of threats such as terrorist attacks and large flows of migrants.
But there is also an overall loss of trust and confidence in institutions across the spectrum of government, leaving voters often with perceptions of unappetizing choices in elections. Some opt for a populist choice, fanned by strong personalities rather than parties. Others opt out or choose a fringe group as a protest vote.
As of now it is not clear how Martin Schulz and his party will successfully confront these challenges. They seem to be making less progress by banking on fatigue after twelve years of Merkel.
Nor is it clear how much traction they can pick up in the foreign policy arena, despite Schulz using his campaign speeches to tap into frustrations with Trump’s agitations about increasing Germany’s defense expenditures.
In some ways, the SPD resembles the current plight of the Democrats in the U.S. The pitch to the voters last November failed to bring enough supporters to their side—particularly in those states where voters had previously supported Obama. The Democrats are also not generating much enthusiasm with their newly-introduced agenda, and they are as yet without national figures who can generate enthusiasm to challenge the current president.
The SPD has put forward their candidate and their platform. They will soon find out whether they have a winning formula…or whether they have to start over.