Progressive Mehrheit Debattenbeitrag

Recovering from trauma in the heat of Government?

The SPD faces the unenviable task of digesting its second worst result in its party history, while at the same time negotiating and then potentially governing in a Grand Coalition.

When the German SPD received the worst result of its history at the federal elections in 2009, many social democrats blamed it on their previous eleven years in government, four of which had been in a Grand Coalition under Chancellor Merkel from 2005 to 2009. The prevailing view was that in opposition, the SPD would recover automatically, as if this was about some kind of natural law.

But the natural law turned out to be an illusion. This September, the SPD scored the second worst result in party history, coming in at 25.7% – a mere 2.7% gain since 2009. The result would have been even worse if the Green and the Left parties had not been so weak, catering for an influx of left-leaning voters.

On the other hand, the SPD did not succeed in winning back serious sections of former non-voters as it had hoped, nor did it grasp a substantial amount of votes from the political centre. Even more unsettling, the party performed below-average among younger voters, especially among women between the ages of 25 and 44. Moreover, only 27% of workers voted for the social democrats, while 36% opted for the conservative CDU/CSU.

If you look at a map of which party won which constituency, Germany is painted in the black colours of the CDU/CSU. In large parts of the country – mainly in the east and the south – the SPD remains caught in the 20-per cent-tower with whole regions having no directly elected social democratic representative at all.

Unlike 2009, this time, there can be no excuses. The defeat and its extent can neither be explained by the unpopular social democratic welfare reforms of ten years ago, nor by pointing to a strong Chancellor or the lack of a mood for change in the country. At the end of the day, it is a defeat of our own making. In the upcoming month, it will be crucial for the SPD to thoroughly scrutinise and discuss the root causes of its failure. Sure enough, not a single person, incident or tactical decision is responsible, but a combination of factors.

For example, the opposition strategy is a worthy subject for debate. When he became fraction leader four years ago, Frank-Walter Steinmeier had announced that the SPD should not “start a contest with populist slogans”, but would have to show “that it is able to take over government any day”. This approach was appropriate for the transition period from government to opposition, but it arguably turned out to be a burden later on, for instance when the SPD felt obliged to follow the Conservative-Liberal government on all European rescue measures.

Another point of discussion must be on why the election campaign was so ill prepared and suffered from severe technical and organisational flaws. Part of the problem was distrust and lack of cooperation among major party leaders and their staff, but the extent of the failure was so evident that deep structural problems cannot be ignored or glossed over.

Also, the SPD will have to reassess its policy offers and how they were communicated. In an attempt to recover credibility, the party put much emphasis on social issues such as the minimum wage and pensions. However, although a societal majority supported the stance of the SPD on those matters, only a small amount of people would actually profit from a minimum wage or a “solidaristic pension”.

The SPD did not have enough on offer for the middle class, who have profited nicely from the positive economic developments of the last years. In terms of economic competence, the CDU/CSU greatly outperformed the SPD. And all too often, the SPD came across as a party of grumblers and defeatists, while the CDU (“Germany is strong”) did a much better job in capturing the overall optimistic Zeitgeist.

This list is, of course, still incomplete. The challenge is that the SPD will probably have to hold this debate while beginning to govern in a grand coalition again – this is the most likely scenario at the moment, if the members agree to it in a consultation process. In government, all too often short-term priorities prevail over longer-term necessities. And the future office holders will only have limited interest to engage in collective navel-gazing, in particular since most of them are to blame for the defeat in one way or another.

In order to regain support, it will be crucial for the SPD to enter the grand coalition out of conviction and to organise good governance. A grand coalition with a more than 80-percent-majority in the parliament will only be legitimate and accepted if it tackles grand problems such as the energy transition project, the federal fiscal relations, or the crisis in Europe.

In the last grand coalition, all too often social democrats came across as the “honest craftsmen”, bringing up good policy ideas but allowing the conservatives to take much of the credit. This time, the SPD must be visible as the pushy driver of this coalition which makes the conservatives – who have no political project whatsoever – get a move on. And from time to time, it will be necessary to stage a symbolic conflict with the Chancellor in the form of a mild opposition in the government.

As if coming to terms with the past and at the same time governing as a junior partner is not a hard enough task, social democrats will also have to define a strategy towards the Greens and the Left party. Another important problem of the election campaign was that the SPD assumed too early that the red-green numbers would be enough to win the Chancellor’s office: but after the SPD and the Greens announced they would govern together, the polls showed that they did not have enough support for this wish to come true. The public sensed this. At the same-time, leading social democratic figures had flatly ruled out a red-red-green coalition with the Left party.

In the German six to seven party system, the capacity to form alliances is a crucial factor for voting decisions. More than 20 years after unification, it is about time to open up to the Left party, on the condition that the former ruling party of the GDR renews itself, not least in terms of its foreign policy. The political scientist Ralf Tils has argued that the SPD must decide whether it will follow a “camp strategy” and focus on turning the parliamentary majority of SPD, Greens and Left party into a realistic coalition option; – or whether it wants to follow a “strategy across camps”, where the future coalition option remains open and the SPD reaches for the large group of voters at the centre.

I am afraid, the SPD will have to do another set of gymnastic splits and try both at the same time – challenging the conservatives on the middle ground, and taking on the lead role in a fragmented left camp. Only this way, a strong and reliable political alternative can be on offer in 2017.

The article was published as contribution to the monthly insight bulletin State of the Left by our London-based partner thinktank policy network.