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Opinion: Nahles must now reinvent the SPD

April 23, 2018

The SPD hasn't showered its new leader with premature praise. But Andrea Nahles shouldn't take it personally. Her poor election result is just an indication of how wary the party is, says DW's Sabine Kinkartz.

Andrea Nahles
Image: picture alliance/dpa/A. Dedert

It couldn't have gone much worse for the first female leader in the 155-year history of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD). Not quite two-thirds of the delegates voted for Andrea Nahles at the party's national convention in Wiesbaden. The only party leader to be elected with a worse result was Oskar Lafontaine in 1995. A shame, really. Electing a woman to lead the Social Democrats for the first time could certainly have been a more rousing occasion.

The poor result is not, of course, because Andrea Nahles is a woman. Nor is it aimed at the 47-year-old personally. Rather, it is an expression of the deep rift that runs right through the party. The Social Democrats are deeply divided, and at odds over what path the party needs to take in order to renew itself following its worst-ever postwar result of 20.5 percent in September's federal election. One camp believes it can only be saved by a radical political swing to the left. Back to the party of the workers and the little people. More state, more social welfare. Scrap Hartz IV, the basic provision for the unemployed!

Read more: One in 10 German workers earn below minimum wage

Sabine Kinkartz
DW's Sabine Kinkartz argues Nahles has to prove she can reinvent the party after its dismal 2017 election result

A more cautious approach

The other side of the party also wants to see a renewal of the SPD — but one that's not as radical, not as left-wing, not as clearly opposed to the unpopular government coalition with the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). This is the course Andrea Nahles favors. She wants to keep the coalition going. She believes the SPD should be a reliable partner in government, but with its own unmistakable political signature. Govern and renew. It's certainly a balancing act — one that critics say is bound to fail.

Read more: Germany's Social Democratic Party: What you need to know

These critics also don't believe that Andrea Nahles really wants — or is able — to renew the party. She's been a member of the SPD for 30 years, and it feels as if she's been on the front line for almost as long. She's held pretty much every party office there is, and she's already served as a government minister under Chancellor Angela Merkel. Nahles is part of the political establishment. And that's precisely her problem. She embodies everything that's gone wrong in recent years. Can someone like that reinvent themselves?

Rather naïve

One-third of the party delegates must have answered "No" to this question, which is no surprise. Rather, it appears naïve of Andrea Nahles to have hoped more people would back her. Has she forgotten how close the result of the vote was at the last party conference in Bonn: the vote on whether to go ahead with coalition negotiations with the CDU? What the "no" voters on Sunday wanted to do was send a signal to the party leadership.

In this context, Sunday's election result in Wiesbaden is simply an honest one. The SPD has fallen out of favor with voters. It is standing almost on the edge of the abyss, just shy of no longer being one of the major parties. Andrea Nahles must now turn things around; she must guarantee the resurgence of social democracy. She will be measured by her achievements in this regard and nothing else. At the same time, she must reunite the party. It's a herculean task. Not for nothing has Nahles been dubbed a "Trümmerfrau," or "rubble woman" — the name given to the women who cleared away debris from the wasteland Germany had become and rebuilt it after World War II.

From that point of view, perhaps it's no bad thing, politically speaking, that the new SPD leader didn't receive premature praise. As a "Trümmerfrau," she has a chance to show what she can do. She's someone who can work hard, and she can fight.Just 66 percent — it can only really get better. Or to quote the old socialist workers' song: "Toward the sun, toward freedom, upwards to the light! Out of the dark of the past, the future shines bright."