domingo, 8 de maio de 2016
Help wanted: turn-around expert to lead German SPD
Help wanted: turn-around expert to lead German SPD
Sigmar Gabriel’s leadership of the center-left party is in doubt — as is the future of the SPD itself.
By MATTHEW KARNITSCHNIG 5/9/16, 5:32 AM CET
BERLIN — Running Germany’s Social Democrats was long considered one of the most coveted political positions in Europe.
For decades, the job, once held by party icon Willy Brandt, guaranteed power, prestige, even adulation.
These days, party officials jokingly refer to the position as a Himmelfahrtskommando, German for kamikaze mission.
Last week, the SPD fell to a record low of just 20 percent in German public television’s benchmark poll, known as Deutschlandtrend. That puts the Social Democrats, a party that traces its roots back to 1863, just five percentage points ahead of the populist Alternative für Deutschland, founded just three years ago.
In the past, such a dismal showing would have triggered a leadership battle. Yet current party leader Sigmar Gabriel, who took over the post in 2009, faces no revolt. The reason is neither loyalty to him nor support for his strategy, but simply that so no one else appears willing to step in.
“Grand coalitions have always led to disillusionment among their electorate” — Josef Janning, ECFR
A rumor on Sunday that Gabriel planned to resign in the coming days sparked a hasty round of denials from Social Democrats, who called the reports “utter nonsense.”
The SPD, as the Social Democrats are known in Germany, suffers from much of the same malaise as other established center-left parties in Europe. In Europe’s post-industrial societies, the labor movement’s traditional message long ago lost most of its resonance. Today, faced with a populist resurgence, the parties have struggled to hold on to their clientele.
The SPD’s recent decline has been particularly dramatic, however. After suffering several crushing defeats in regional elections in March, the party’s poll numbers have continued to drop.
Political scientists may diverge on the details of what ails the SPD, but there’s broad consensus on the root cause of the party’s current crisis: its grand coalition with Angela Merkel and her center-right allies.
“Grand coalitions have always led to disillusionment among their electorate,” said Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of think tank European Council on Foreign Relations.
Cost of coalitions
The SPD agreed to the grand coalition with Merkel in 2013 after her previous partner, the liberal Free Democrats, failed to meet the 5 percent threshold for inclusion in parliament.
By their nature, grand coalitions risk leaving the two parties indistinguishable. At the time, there were reservations, especially in the SPD, over renewing the pairing just four years after the last grand coalition. The SPD had won 26 percent of the vote and appeared to have regained momentum after a disastrous 23 percent result in 2009. Given the conservatives’ dominant position, many SPD officials worried the deal would end up marginalizing them.
Many voters no longer identify the SPD with the traditional social issues it was built on.
Those concerns were justified. If the first grand coalition under Merkel, which ended in 2009, left the SPD bruised, the current one has left it battered.
The biggest problem for the SPD may be the chancellor herself. Over the years, Merkel has shifted her party further to the left, co-opting SPD themes and positions on issues as varied as pensions, rent control and refugees.
The result is that many voters no longer identify the SPD with the traditional social issues it was built on.
Only 32 percent of Germans still consider the fight for social justice a core SPD competence, for example, down from 38 percent in 2015, according to last week’s Deutschlandtrend poll. Just 26 percent of Germans give the party high marks for its expertise on retirement policy.
While the SPD succeeded in introducing a minimum wage, a longtime goal, voters appear give it little credit. The reason: At $8.50 an hour, it’s well below what most Germans already make.
Gabriel, who is also economy minister and vice chancellor, hasn’t helped matters by sending mixed messages on key policy questions. Over the past year, he as at times argued both for and against the transatlantic trade agreement, known as TTIP.
Though he has supported Merkel’s line on refugees, he warned against not doing enough “for our own population.”
Only 13 percent of Germans would support Gabriel as chancellor. That compares to 49 percent for Merkel, who, despite the difficulties she has faced over the refugee issue, remains one of the country’s most popular politicians.
Volkspartei in danger
The big question now is whether Gabriel will be his party’s candidate for chancellor next year. He wants to put off the decision until after May 2017 elections in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s biggest state, according to a weekend report in the Bild newspaper. The federal election is scheduled for the fall.
The drop in support for the SPD has put the party in striking distance for both the Greens and the AfD.
In the 2013 election, with Merkel heavily favored to win, Gabriel stepped back, allowing former finance minister Peer Steinbrück to carry the mantle. Party officials say he can’t duck another run.
Though he served as premier of Lower Saxony, Gabriel inherited the post from a party colleague and has never won a major election.
The recent speculation, denied by the party on Sunday, is that he would hand the chairmanship to Olaf Scholz, the popular mayor of Hamburg. Martin Schulz, the European parliament president, is often named as a potential candidate for chancellor.
Gabriel’s health problems have fueled the rumor mill. Last week, he was forced to cancel a major trade mission to Tehran due to a breakout of shingles, a viral condition often associated with stress.
Whether he survives as party leader or not, questions about the SPD’s future as a pillar of Germany’s party system, what Germans call a Volkspartei, will remain.
The drop in support for the SPD has put the party in striking distance for both the Greens and the AfD. In the state election in Saxony Anhalt in March, the SPD won less than 11 percent of the vote, finishing fourth behind the AfD and the Left party. In Baden-Württemberg, a prosperous industrial area, it won just 13 percent, a historic low. In both instances the SPD fell by about 10 percentage points from the previous election.
If the Social Democrats suffer similar declines at the federal level, party leaders won’t have to worry about the perils of the grand coalition any longer. The SPD would be would be too small to qualify.