German political parties are finding it increasingly hard to get young people to join their ranks and perhaps even become tomorrow's party leaders. For the Social Democrats, it's proving especially challenging.
The SPD needs an infusion of fresh blood, say younger members
The leadership of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) is not quite a council of octogenarians, but then again, the faces at the top are not exactly pink with the flush of youth.
Party chief Franz Müntefering is 65; outgoing Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is 61; outgoing Interior Minister Otto Schily is 73; and Economic Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul has celebrated her 62nd birthday. While these might come in at the upper end of the age scale, it can be hard to find high-profile SPD politicians under 50.
"The party is ailing a little when it comes to the next generation," said Oskar Niedermeyer, a political science professor who researches political parties at Berlin's Free University. "Personnel is relatively thin on the ground when it comes to new blood."
That has some, especially those within the party, worried about the SPD's future. With the departure of Gerhard Schröder the party is losing one of its most charismatic figures. He was 54 when he became chancellor in 1998 and he attracted younger voters in part exactly because his image was a relatively youthful one, especially compared to that of his opponent, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, then aged 68.
The old guard: (from left) Müntefering , Schily, Joschka Fischer and Gerhard Schröder
"We run the danger that the SPD is going to become a party of old people," said Björn Böhning, the chair of the SPD's youth wing, the Jusos. "We know that young people are attracted to us and support us right now, but if nothing is done (to give the party a younger face), that will stop."
He is demanding that the party work harder to support its younger members, putting more of them in high-profile, responsible positions with the aim of keeping the party from becoming stale.
"The new cabinet is a good beginning," he said, referring to the future cabinet in an Angela Merkel-led grand coalition government between the SPD and the conservative Christian Union bloc. There will be eight SPD ministers, three of whom are under 50. "But there must be a much stronger generational change in the party and the parliamentary group."
But the question is who those new faces will be and even whether the SPD has enough young people in the ranks who have the potential to be future leaders of the party, and by extension, perhaps the country.
Political scientists trace the low reserves in the party to the era of Willy Brandt, the legendary SPD figure who was chancellor from 1969 to 1974. During this time, the party experienced an explosion of growth, and many of the new members were in their late teens or early 20s.
A young Gerhard Schröder with Willy Brandt in 1980
These so-called "Brandt's grandchildren," and there were many of them, became the party leaders of the next generation, and are still there today. Their numbers left little room, and few leading positions, for younger people, who were often seen as competitors and pushed down when they showed too much ambition.
That has led to some frustration among younger party members.
"The same people have the power positions in the party for 20 years," said Werner Patzelt, a political science professor at Dresden's Technical University. "Young SPD members want the same chances the Schröders in the party had."
Enough waiting in the wings?
Sometimes, however, the younger people are simply not there. When the Green party formed and began to coalesce as a small, but serious political party, many young, left-leaning SPD members decided to jump ship and join the new guys on the block.
Andrea Nahles, up-and-coming SPD youngster
That is not to say that there are no younger SPD politicians waiting in the wings. Andrea Nahles (photo), 35, is being considered for the job of deputy parliamentary group leader, among other high-level jobs. Sigmar Gabriel, 46, has been named environment minister in the new Merkel cabinet. Although Klaus Wowereit, current mayor of Berlin, is already 53, he still counts as a younger SPD politician with a potentially bright future. (Most would say he acts much younger than his years, anyway.)
"I'm sometimes skeptical when people want new, younger faces just to have new faces," said Patzelt. "You need people who have the experience needed in these high positions so they can hold their own against their opponents. It's important to have a balance between younger and older."
He also warns that the generational change brings other dangers with it, especially for the SPD. The Jusos, and younger members of the party in general, tend to be more left-wing than the older, more experienced politicians. As younger people try to get more power, it could lead to a schism between the young, who want to maintain Germany's generous welfare state and emphasize social justice, and those older members, who support Gerhard Schröder's more centrist Agenda 2010, the controversial spate of welfare and labor reforms aimed at making Germany more competitive on the world stage.
Experts are quick to point out that the problem of fresh blood is a problem for all Germany's political parties, although the SPD has been hit perhaps the hardest. According to Patzelt, younger people in general are not as interested anymore in the traditional path of joining a political party and moving up in the ranks by proving their loyalty.
"People still want to participate, but are looking at things like citizens' initiatives, more short-term commitments," he said. "Besides, demographics show our society is getting older. There are simply fewer young people to go around."