German Social Democrats woo young members | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 13.12.2013
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German Social Democrats woo young members

The SPD member vote is well underway. The party's base is split, and the leadership has been using all means to persuade its members to vote for the agreement. They've been flooding their members with e-mails.

My mobile phone buzzes. I wake up. Andrea Nahles has sent me another e-mail. Again. "Dear Daniel ..." I put away my mobile phone and get up. Andrea Nahles is the secretary general of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). I'm a member of the SPD, I'm on its mailing list and I have a smart phone with a forwarding function. My phone vibrates when I receive an e-mail. Recently, it's been vibrating quite often.

The SPD is Germany's oldest political party - it celebrated its 150th anniversary this year. It has a colorful history: It survived oppression during the Second German Reich, it has appointed chancellors, and it has led the opposition. Recently, the SPD didn't do so well. Its member numbers have halved over the past 20 years. In the 1998 elections, it received 41 percent of the vote - then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder came, and with him the Agenda 2010, which was followed by a dive in popularity. During the last election, the SPD received only about 26 percent of the vote.

Fight for every vote

Daniel Heinrich

Daniel Heinrich, a DW trainee, has been slogging through the many e-mails he receives from his party

Nevertheless, the SPD now has the chance to be part of the new government, as junior partner in a "grand coalition." Franz Müntefering, one of Andrea Nahles' predecessors, has said: "Opposition is nonsense." This sentence continues to shape the SPD's self-image to this today.

The party leadership wants to govern. For this purpose, it's negotiated a coalition agreement with the Christian Democratic Union and its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union. Now, party members are to vote on this coalition agreement. It's not a foregone conclusion - which is why Andrea Nahles is sending e-mails. The party leadership has been promoting the coalition agreement and government participation with e-mail subject lines like "Our trademark in the coalition agreement" or "The SPD has won."

"The SPD wants to get away from the 'enough-is-enough policy' of Gerhard Schröder," said Frank Decker, a political party scholar at the University of Bonn. Thus, the member voteon the coalition agreement, and the e-mails. "The SPD wants to involve its members more in the opinion-forming process and wants to give them a voice," Decker told DW. To this end, the SPD has been using all forms of communication, including new media.

Flood of e-mails

Smart phone with message notification

Recently SPD Secretary General Andrea Nahles has been sending a lot of e-mails

Andrea Nahles is not the only one sending me e-mails. Sometimes SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel, or my district chairman, also writes me messages. Even the European working group and the youth branch of the SPD - the Jusos - write me e-mails. And every Tuesday, I also receive an SPD briefing. On average, I get three to four e-mails from the party every day. It's a struggle to keep up on all the communications.

I want to know more about the mood among the party's grassroots, like what they think about the coalition agreement and the online initiative. At the regional conference in Leverkusen, members passionately debate the issues for hours. Some argue in favor of the coalition agreement, some against. Many comrades struggle to make a decision. Some are afraid of the SPD becoming irrelevant if it's not actively governing. Others think that the SPD would betray its values in a grand coalition. This is far from what unity looks like.

'Only for the youngest …'

Sigmar Gabriel at Jusos 2013 conference

Sigmar Gabriel, SPD chairman, has also been sending e-mails to party members

I do see unity once. "The e-mails always go straight to the rubbish bin," said a young female comrade dressed in a suit. "It's a real flood of e-mails they're sending," said an older man in a sweater vest. "I already know what they're saying in the e-mails," said a man who is standing at the entrance.

These people are not alone in their opinion. All evening long, I get the same reaction. Regardless of whom I ask, the comrades reject the online campaign, or are just not interested in it. Why? "The e-mails are for the youngest in the party," said a man in his forties. "Even for people in your generation they're no good anymore," he said directly to me.

Is he implying that even I am too old to be considered the party's target audience? Well, maybe. After all, I am turning thirty next week. In the course of researching in the evening, I find out that the average SPD member is 59 years old. My mobile phone vibrates again. "Dear Daniel …" I fall asleep.

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