Sigmar Gabriel’s political miracle
Having experienced a resounding defeat in the recent German election, the SPD have maneuvered into a position whereby they can strongly challenge Angela Merkel from within the Bundestag.
Since the social democrats’ electoral demise last September, the German public have witnessed something like a political miracle: an SPD resurrection, brought about through a strategic masterstroke by party chairman Sigmar Gabriel. The new vice-chancellor had entered coalition negotiations with the victorious conservative CDU/CSU under the caveat that his party members would have to vote on the agreement. The pending member vote increased his bargaining power with Angela Merkel, allowing Gabriel to force the conservatives into major concessions and to put a strong social democratic imprint on the agreement.
Projects such as a nation-wide minimum wage, the facilitation of dual citizenship and stronger temporary work regulation then convinced the social democratic membership: 76 per cent voted in favour, with four out of five members casting their votes. Suddenly, Angela Merkel and her CDU/CSU were on the defensive. Not only had the blandness of the conservatives become evident, as they gave way on many issues simply because they had fewer political fights to pick on their list. Also, the chancellor had to vindicate why such a “festival of inner-party democracy” had not been possible in the CDU/CSU.
Furthermore, the chances are good that it will be social democrats shaping the relevant issues in the coalition. Let´s wait and see if the new female conservative minister for defense Ursula von der Leyen is really able to implement the necessary reforms of the German military. Let´s see how far the minister of transport Alexander Dobrindt (CSU) proceeds with his crazy idea of a car toll for foreigners. In the meantime, the SPD can set about modernising the country: with the 39-year-old Manuela Schwesig as minister for family affairs; with the first state minister of Turkish origin Aydan Özuguz, responsible for integration and migration; with the young minister for consumer protection Heiko Maas; with Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a “real foreign minister” at last, as they say in the ministry for foreign affairs; and, of course, with Sigmar Gabriel as the new minister for economy and energy, a position which gives him the opportunity to take centre stage and demonstrate the SPD’s economic competence.
Gabriel had linked his political destiny to this membership vote. He took a risk Angela Merkel would have never taken. And it paid off. Never before in his political career was he as respected and powerful. The party chairman now holds the uncontested strategic centre of the SPD. From today, he looks like the natural social democratic frontrunner for the 2017 elections.
Sure enough, Gabriel´s success should not blind us to the fact that there are major potential pitfalls along the way over the next four years. For example, Gabriel´s decision to take the energy transition into his ministerial portfolio is – again – a high risk strategy. If things go well, Gabriel can prove his governing skills. On the other hand, the issue is extremely complex, it involves many veto players, and if things take a turn for the worse, it will be the vice-chancellor explaining to firms and citizens why energy prices are rising.
Also, it is far from certain that Gabriel´s plan to strengthen the SPD´s economic credibility will work out. The problem is that the SPD fought this election campaign by proposing to finance extra spending on major projects through increasing taxes at the top. During the coalition talks, the conservatives prevented any tax increases, while some of the social democratic projects still made it into the coalition agreement. As a result, it will be the SPD asking for more money to spend on investments, and the conservative finance minister looking like the voice of reason defending the tax payer´s money. It fits into this picture that there is a social democratic minister of labour and social affairs, Andrea Nahles, who is beginning an expansive pension reform which will make certain groups of current and prospective pensioners better off – at the expense of future generations and regardless of Germany´s negative demographic prospects.
In the next four years, it will be crucial for the SPD to bring home the message that the government policies are compromises with the conservatives, and that the SPD has more on offer than what was agreed upon between the coalition partners. At the same time, it will be essential to develop progressive policies for the period after 2017 and to establish firm links to potential future coalition partners. Regarding these challenges, the good news is that there has been a process of renewal and rejuvenation in the SPD parliamentary group in the Bundestag. In particular, the nine deputy leadersof the parliamentary group around chairman Thomas Oppermann could play an important role, seven of whom are new in the job. It remains to be seen if they manage can manage to make an impact on the public – and in a North-Korean-style parliament, where 80 per cent of MPs support the government.