Germany′s Social Democrats still struggling after Andrea Nahles′ first 100 days | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 30.07.2018
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Germany's Social Democrats still struggling after Andrea Nahles' first 100 days

The SPD's first-ever female chairperson is drawing better-than-expected reviews after her first few months in charge. But unfortunately for her, she hasn't been able to shift the Social Democrats' dismal poll numbers.

Andrea Nahles is spending her 100th day as the head of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) on the campaign stump in Bavaria ahead of regional elections there this October. It's hardly a glamorous gig: a meeting with a mayor in the town of Dietfurt (population 6,100) and then an appointment with regional SPD candidates at a brewery.

But it's the sort of legwork Nahles will need to stop the rot in the SPD. While never much of a force in traditionally conservative Bavaria, Social Democrats have slipped as low as 12 percent in polls and risk being overtaken by the Greens on the left and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party on the far right.

If it's any consolation for the chairwoman, who was elected to the top job by a meager two-thirds majority at a party conference in late April, she's at least drawing words of praise for her leadership from former internal SPD critics.

"She's keeping the shop together and showing leadership," Johannes Kahrs, a prominent SPD centrist, told a consortium of German newspapers. "I'm not a member of the Nahles' fan club, but to be honest, she's done a great job."

"Andrea Nahles has worked insanely hard," concurred Kevin Kühnert, the SPD youth leader who led a rebellion against continuing the grand coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel — a move Nahles supported in a fiery convention speech that increased her profile at home and abroad. "She devotes an incredible amount of time to personal conversations and will call you up early in the morning and late at night."

This sort of praise must be particularly welcome to the 48-year-old political veteran. Nahles was initially greeted with skepticism from many rank-and-file SPD members who would have preferred to see a radical change of the guard.

'What counts isn't the polls'

Nahles inherited a party reeling from its historical poor showing, 20.5 percent of the vote, in the 2017 national election. But there's been no turnaround. On the contrary, current national polls consistently put the SPD at only 18 percent.

28-year-old Maximilian Janetzki, the chairman of the local SPD chapter in eastern Oberhausen and the co-author of a "self-diagnosis" of the party's current problems, says that it's too early to judge the party's national chairwoman. The challenge for Nahles, he adds, is to help reinvent the SPD while ensuring that it continues to function in a coalition with Merkel's conservatives.

"I think Andrea Nahles knows that what counts isn't the polls taken between elections," Janetzki told Deutsche Welle. "But she has to make sure that the SPD also shows what it can do during this government. It's in her own interest to take back control over the discussion."

Part of Nahles' task, Janetzki adds, is to translate "the language of government into the language of the SPD" and win back traditional Social Democratic voters turned off by social-benefits cuts under Social Democratic former chancellor Gerhard Schröder from 1998 to 2005 and the party's centrist course in three grand coalitions since then.

Returning to traditional areas of strengths was one of the main recommendations of a more than 100-page self-critical analysis commissioned by the party leadership after the 2017 election debacle. But effectively selling voters on such a realignment may be easier said than done.

Merkel and Nahles (picture-alliance/dpa/I.Bänsch)

Nahles has succeeded in attracting concessions from Merkel's conservatives

No credit where credit is due?

The great irony in the SPD's current malaise is that the issues Germans say matter most to them are social and traditionally Social Democratic ones such as old-age poverty, educational equality and affordable rents. Janetzki hopes that Nahles can turn the discussion back toward those topics and away from the headline-grabbing issue of migrants and asylum policy.

"The SPD and Andrea Nahles have to ensure that we get out of the refugee discussion and focus on increased costs of living, poorly paid jobs and social inequalities in our country," Janetzki said.

The Social Democrats took a pragmatic approach to the recent conflict within the conservative camp, declining to ratchet up tension within the government over what was largely a symbolic debate and extracting a promise for a comprehensive immigration law in return.

But the SPD's pragmatism did not yield a bump in the polls. Instead, Social Democrats have been criticized for agreeing to reclassify the Maghreb states as safe countries of return for failed asylum applicants. The Greens, who reject the reclassification, have seen their popularity rise, putting Nahles on the defensive.

"Imitating the Greens won't get us anywhere," Nahles told the Münchner Merkur newspaper over the weekend in response to the criticism.

But the constellation illustrates Nahles' dilemma. Whereas voters identify the Green Party with core issues like environmentalism and multiculturalism, Social Democrats have to reestablish their credentials on their traditional strong points — and find new pools of voters interested in them.

Simone Lange (picture-alliance/dpa/P. Steffen)

Simone Lange says that a new start requires new leaders

Renewal without new faces

Numbers are not the Social Democrats' friends right now. Since agreeing to the current grand coalition, the SPD has lost almost 14,000 party members. The average age of a card-carrying Social Democrat is 60, and as the party's election post mortem noted, the SPD has dramatic problems appealing to younger voters.

Janetzki says the way forward is not just putting forward younger candidates or reforming the 155-year-old party's often byzantine structures, but stressing the SPD's commitment to social equity. He's cautiously optimistic that Nahles has made a good start in this direction. "That makes me hope that we'll have more success in future," Janetzki says.

But others disagree. Simone Lange — the mayor of the northern German city of Flensburg, who challenged Nahles for the party leadership back in April — says that not enough is being done.

"The SPD is squandering chances," Lange told the dpa news agency. "I can't see that anything has fundamentally changed in our structures." She added that "many people associate renewal with new faces" — a none-too-subtle jibe at Nahles.

The SPD chairwoman may be glad that her working day on Tuesday ends with a brewery visit. Given the enormity of the challenges she faces, she'd be forgiven for downing a cold one or two.

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