Can the SPD emerge from Angela Merkel′s shadow? | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 10.12.2015
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Can the SPD emerge from Angela Merkel's shadow?

For years, the Social Democrats have been unable to beat Angela Merkel at the ballot box. With the chancellor now struggling due to her stance on refugees, will Germany's second most-popular party finally step up?

Some 600 delegates are expected in Berlin for the Social Democrat Party's (SPD) national party conference, which starts on Thursday. The meeting will provide the party an opportunity to plan how it will approach the next two years as the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel's "grand coalition" government.

The refugee crisis and Germany's military involvement in Syria make the political landscape uncertain, and those issues will be central topics for discussion among SPD representatives. Family policy, the digital economy and workplace relations laws will be put under the microscope in Berlin as well.

For the first time in years, SPD members will be able to regard Opinion: Dangerous times for MerkelMerkel as a surmountable political opponent. This is mainly due to her "open door" stance on refugees, which has lost her much support. The SPD will be able to use its meeting to establish a new policy countering Merkel's statement "We can do it."

Deutschland Registrierung von Flüchtlingen

Cutting waiting times: The SPD wants to speed up the integration of refugees

The search for a "responsible refugee policy"

SPD members will be able get first-hand experience of what recently arrived refugees are going through as a temporary shelter for 600 refugees has been built just meters from the conference center.

Watch video 12:06

Refugees welcome - but then what?

Ahead of the meeting, the team around the SPD General Secretary Yasmin Fahimi has stated it wanted to take a clear position on the issue. Rather than imposing a limit on the number of refugees coming into Germany, as called for by the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, the SPD is expected to opt for a slowing down of refugees coming into the country.

The refugees' right to asylum is expected to remain untouched in their policy rethink, as their aim is reportedly to create a so-called "responsible refugee policy."

Some policy changes could turn into sticking points for the grand coalition. For instance, the SPD's proposed plan of increasing the protection given to victims of war in Syria. In an internal document obtained by the Düsseldorf-based "Rheinische Post" newspaper, the party argued that these people should be entirely taken out of the asylum-seeking process to relieve pressure on the local authorities who process their applications.

The SPD also wants young asylum seekers afforded special protection during any training or education phase, as well as them being allowed to stay on in Germany afterwards. This, as well as many other issues, should be set down in a new immigration law, party members have said. But the CDU and CSU have deemed a new immigration law unnecessary.

More diplomacy in Syria

Foreign policy is another issue sure to get attention at the three-day meeting with special interest given to the Germany military's involvement in Syria as part of the fight against "Islamic State."

Irak Außenminister Steinmeier trifft Massud Barsani

Steinmeier has made a name for himself as a diplomat around the world

The SPD is highly sensitive to military missions, Fahimi said on Tuesday in Berlin. The party now wants to work on a leading motion to show how peace could best be achieved in the country. The SPD general secretary said she believes that the Syria debate is important in order to "keep the party together."

All eyes will be on Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier during these discussions as he plays a major role in shaping the party - and Germany's - foreign policy.

An unnecessary ballot

Voting will dominate most of the day's proceedings on Friday. Everyone expects Sigmar Gabriel to retain his position as head of the SPD. Still, the exact result will be interesting. Two years ago he got a vote of 83.6 percent, a result which some considered fairly poor.

This time, the vote will play a role in predicting whether Gabriel will be the party's next nominee for the position of chancellor. Lower Saxony State Premier Stephan Weil has thrown his support behind Gabriel, who also serves as vice chancellor and economy minister.

"Gabriel is the clear number one in our party," he recently told German news agency dpa.

SPD voters themselves may have a different view on who would make the best chancellor candidate. According to a poll by the German newspaper "Welt am Sonntag," many of the party faithful would prefer to see Steinmeier run for the chancellery.

Deutschland Sigmar Gabriel PK zur Flüchtlingspolitik

Gabriel is expected to be re-elected party head - the question is by how much

But with the next German parliamentary election set for 2017, a formal nomination will not take place over the next three days in Berlin.

There had also been talk of the SPD putting two people at the head of the party, following the example of the opposition Greens and Left party. This issue, however, has been on the agenda after the party elects a leader, making it highly unlikely it will change the face of the party in the near term.

But it is clear to many that the SPD needs a revamp after being stuck in Merkel's shadow for years. A recent Forsa survey showed voters' support for the SPD at 24 percent while Merkel's CDU came in at 38 percent.

SPD leaders will, however, take time to point out what they regard as the party's successes, including the introduction of a minimum wage, retirement at 63 and rules to prevent abuse of part-time workers.

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