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Is this the end of Germany's SPD?

Felix Steiner
Felix Steiner
February 20, 2018

Is this really the death knell for Germany's venerable Social Democrats? For the first time, the party is even less popular than the right-wing AfD. Germany's party landscape is shifting dramatically, says Felix Steiner.

Flattened cardboard boxes with the SPD logo on them
Image: picture-alliance/Zuma Press/O. Messinger

Journalists and Social Democratic Party (SPD) members have affectionately referred to the SPD as the "old aunt" for decades. The nickname has never been as apt as it is today. Old aunts are sweet and have are full of anecdotes about the past. You can sit down and enjoy a glass of Sherry or a piece of apple pie with them. But beyond that? No one really takes them seriously because they don't seem to have kept up with the times. Then, at some point, they are gone.

Tradition and past accomplishments are of little use in the cut-throat business of politics. Parties and candidates are elected because voters expect them to deliver on future challenges. Because they offer clear goals and leadership. And because they understand voters' concerns. The SPD, however, has been unable to do any of that for years.

The danger of ignoring voters' concerns

profile picture of a DW editor
DW's Felix Steiner

Just one example: polls leave no doubt that the issues of immigration and refugees clearly dominate voters' sentiments in Germany. Beyond that, the SPD's core clientele, which does not consist of the country's wealthiest citizens, is also concerned about affordable housing, something that is in short supply, especially in larger cities.

But instead of focusing on an issue that should be close to its heart, the SPD makes the issue of family reunification for immigrants and refugees its top priority in coalition negotiations with Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU). It shouldn't come as a surprise that the SPD's demise is happening at the same time the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) is steadily gaining in popularity — often in voting districts in which the SPD had been extremely strong in the past.

That trend is, of course, subject to further change. No one knows about the volatility of weekly polls better than the SPD itself — it was, after all, just a year ago that chancellor candidate Martin Schulz was hyped as the man who would save the party.

Read moreMartin Schulz, former leader of Germany's Social Democrats in profile

New elections would be an absolute disaster for the SPD. That should be crystal clear to those who are currently trying to drum up support among the party base to vote against participating in a coalition with the CDU/CSU, and who proclaim that renewal can only come if the SPD takes on the role of parliament's largest opposition party.

The concept is utter nonsense. The CDU and CSU are currently proving the point. No one there has any intention of forfeiting the chancellorship, although they are cognizant of the fact that blindly continuing with more of the same is not enough to garner Chancellor Merkel a sufficient ruling majority.

SPD coalition vote divides family

Renewal in government possible

New elections would benefit only the AfD, whose leadership has said it has no desire to govern. And that is exactly what makes recent polls so shocking: fresh elections would mean dramatic losses for the SPD and no gains for the Union parties — polls also indicate that the three parties would not even gain enough votes to make a grand coalition possible.

Just picture the irony: A country with massive wealth and a booming economy is incapable of putting together a ruling majority to form a government.

If SPD party members were to vote against a coalition government it would be akin to committing suicide for fear of dying. It's time for the SPD to show some courage and self-confidence and pride in what it's achieved. There's enough evidence of what it's capable of doing in many cities and states around the country. And it should stand by its accomplishments — voters will honor the party for it.

The SPD committed a similarly grave mistake in the spring of 1990, when it refused to allow individuals from former East Germany's Socialist Unity Party (SED) to join the SPD after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The result was the formation of the Left Party and the loss of more than 10 percent of the SPD's voters, which haunts the party to this day. The SPD cannot afford to repeat that kind of mistake. That would truly be the death of the "old aunt."