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German SPD licks wounds following election mauling

September 25, 2017

Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) suffered its worst election result since World War II, scraping only 20.5 percent of the national vote. It's no surprise that the center-left party has opted to go into opposition.

SPD campaign poster Martin Schulz
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Weihrauch

At the traditional post-election TV debate, Chancellor Angela Merkel begged her erstwhile adversary to sleep on it. Even on Monday, Merkel was leaving the door open for four more years of grand coalition, saying she'd actively seek talks with Germany's weakened second party. But Martin Schulz, head of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) that has been junior coalition partner to Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) for eight of the last 12 years, sounded adamant.

As the SPD's disastrous election results came in on Sunday evening, the visibly unshackled, newly belligerent Schulz, along with other SPD leaders, wasted no time confirming that they were done with government for now — it was time for reappraisal and recharging in opposition. This, senior SPD figures like deputy party leader Ralf Stegner said, was clearly what the voters wanted.

"We're starting a new season," Schulz said at a press conference at his party's headquarters in Berlin on Monday morning, deploying a football metaphor.

Andrea Nahles
Union darling Andrea Nahles looks set to be the SPD's new parliamentary faction leaderImage: Getty Images/L.Schulze

"Our ambition is to be a strong opposition that will form the future of this country from that role," he continued. "This party will not duck out. This is the party that accepts its defeats, processes them, and turns them around, and in the future becomes a strong force in this country again." 

Schulz then tried to sound an even more optimistic note: "In a democracy the opposition is perhaps a more decisive force than the government."

Read more: German election press review - shock and concern the abiding reaction  

A new parliamentary leader

The first step on this new path into the wilderness has apparently been to find a new parliamentary leader for the SPD's diminished Bundestag faction — a projected 153 seats, down from 193.

In government, the SPD's Bundestag members were led by Thomas Oppermann, a slick, media-savvy centrist operator. From now on, Schulz proposed on Monday, the role should be taken by Andrea Nahles, a more left-wing leader currently occupying the position of Labor Minister. Nahles was also the party's general secretary between 2009 and 2013, when the SPD was also in opposition.

But a leftward lurch is not a given. There was some resistance to the haste of the Nahles idea in the SPD on Monday — hinting at discord in the ranks. "The new SPD faction needs time to discuss the necessary personnel questions in peace," Johannes Kahrs, head of the conservative "Seeheimer Kreis," told the Rheinische Post newspaper on Monday.

The trouble here, of course, is that Nahles represents the SPD's old guard - a member of the old Merkel government. 

Read more:  Opinion: Germany wants to battle again

Will opposition make it all better?

But while many in the SPD's grassroots and the media commentariat welcomed the notion that the SPD might be able to find its purpose in opposition, political scientists were less convinced. Matthias Micus, of the Göttingen-based Institute for Democracy Research, suggested he could understand the decision, given how poorly the SPD performed in the election.

"But it's another expression of the completely aimless behavior of the Social Democrats — the erratic, spontaneous actions of the SPD leadership," he said. "It's another ad hoc decision that seems just as unconvincing, insecure, and lacking in self-confidence as all its course changes in social policies."

This center-left schizophrenia was shown in recent months by the SPD's confused attitude to the Agenda 2010 labor market reforms, instigated by their last chancellor, Gerhard Schröder in 2003; while Schulz was promising "corrections" to the reforms on the campaign trail, others in the party saw fit to defend them.

Only recently, Micus pointed out, the SPD had come out defiantly against the idea of opposition - after all, after the last national election in 2013 the SPD had been more than ready to return to their government ministries.

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"Sometimes they're all about economic performance, then they're about social justice again - and with none of their course changes do they improve their fate - quite the opposite," he said.

The opposing argument is that in opposition the Social Democrats can at least forge their own path without being tied to a coalition agreement — but Micus was skeptical of this too. After all, he said, the party first developed one of its most successful policies — the "East policy," or orientation towards the communist east in the late 1960s, as a junior coalition partner to the CDU.

In other words, the SPD's problems are much deeper than whether or not they're in government — what they need is to find a new project that people can clearly identify as purely SPD. That of course is easier said than done.

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight