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Kevin Kühnert: The SPD's left-wing rebel gains influence

December 11, 2021

Does Germany's ruling party risk its new-found unity when firebrand Kevin Kühnert takes on a top job? The former party youth leader must put his differences with Chancellor Olaf Scholz aside and ensure support for him.

Kevin Kühnert speaking at a party conference
Kevin Kühnert has a leading role in the SPDImage: HANNIBAL HANSCHKE/REUTERS

Germany's new coalition government headed by the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) has only just taken office — and already the incoming party secretary, Kevin Kühnert, wants to see amendments to the coalition deal with Greens and neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP).  Left-winger Kühnert makes no secret of the fact that he is not satisfied with what has been agreed, for example, on rent caps or on topping up unemployment benefits.

Many leftist demands fell by the wayside in the negotiations, as the business-oriented FDP leans towards the right of the political spectrum. However, Kühnert insists that several issues have been earmarked for scrutiny and further discussion among the three parties.

The SPD must state its positions clearly and forcefully, according to the 32-year-old, who has long-term strategy in mind: The Social Democrat party, he says, "will continue to exist after this current term of government expires." Therefore, he said, the party must remain true to "its core positions."

Kevin Kühnert has big plans for the party and for his own future, and he has never left any doubt about that. In 2005, the Berlin native joined the SPD at the age of just 16. From 2012, he made a career for himself in the party's youth organization, the "Jusos" (from Junge Sozialisten, or "Young Socialists"), first as head of the Berlin division, then from 2017 as federal chairman.

Vociferous opponent of the grand coalition

After Germany's 2017 general election, Kevin Kühnert campaigned vehemently against his party again entering into a coalition with Angela Merkel's conservatives. He failed, but only by a narrow margin.

Then, in late 2019, Kühnert and his Jusos supported the two left-wing outsiders Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans for the party chairmanship over party moderate and then Finance Minister Olaf Scholz and his running mate.

Kühnert describes himself as a socialist. He has been a member of the SPD executive committee since 2019.

In that year he ruffled feathers with his call for major German companies like BMW to be collectivized and their profits to be democratically controlled. He also called for an end to property ownership: "Thinking it through logically, everyone should own no more living space than they themselves live in."

The comments triggered outrage among SPD moderates.

Coalition backlash

By 2021 Kühnert seems to have mellowed down. The university dropout is openly gay and lives with his husband in the German capital. He has come to focus on his party career.

He successfully ran for the Bundestag, giving up the Jusos' chairship and beating his high-profile rivals from the Greens and the Left Party to do so.

In his new role as the SPD's general secretary, Kühnert will have to be the chief organizer and coordinator for the party as a whole.

Politics is the search for compromise

The new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, must be able to rely on his party's support. But Kühnert admits that political differences remain between him and the chancellor. "If I said otherwise, I would be lying," Kühnert openly admits.

During the election campaign, Kühnert loyally supported Scholz and also ensured that the Jusos' leadership conspicuously held back on criticism.

Kevin Kühnert and Olaf Scholz know that they now depend on each other. Without Scholz, the SPD would not have won the Bundestag election; but Kühnert is considered the SPD's greatest young talent.

Cooperation will not always be completely harmonious. That became clear recently at the Jusos' federal congress when Olaf Scholz called on the youth organization to hold back on criticizing the coalition partners FDP and the Greens. He argued it would make more sense to focus on attacking the center-right CDU/CSU opposition than the coalition partners.

Kühnert,  however, rejected the lecture and countered that it would make sense to show confidence: In a coalition, he said, it is necessary to work well together, but at the same time to make clear what the substantive differences between the parties are, and to let them play out. "The FDP and the SPD don't come from the same political mold, is a fact you can't hide."

As SPD general secretary, Kühnert says he does not want to deepen divisions, but he wants to ensure that the Social Democrat Party remains visible as the center of power in its own right and is not dwarfed by the chancellor's office or seen merely as an appendage of the government. Whether this can succeed without friction and conflict remains to be seen.

This article has been translated from German.

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