Newspaper headlines on Wednesday, June 4, made for disturbing reading for Germany's Social Democrats. Their support has dropped to a historic nadir of 20 percent. There are many reasons for the plunge.
The SPD is flagging badly in public opinion polls
The poll, which was carried out by Germany leading opinion surveying organization, FORSA, showed support for the SPD had declined by three percentage points within a week. 2,501 likely voters were asked about their political preferences. The poll had a margin of error of 2.5 percent.
One short-term factor in the SPD's current decline may be the party's decision to field its own candidate, academic Gesine Schwan, to challenge popular President Horst Koehler in next year's Federal Assembly vote.
Many Germans see that move as a trial balloon for cooperating with the Left party, the successor to the East German Communist party. The votes of the SPD, the Left and the Greens would currently yield a parliamentary majority in the Bundestag.
"Many members of the electorate fear that her candidacy, despite reassurances from SPD chairman Kurt Beck, will be a signal for cooperation with the Left party on the national level," FORSA head Manfred Guellner told the newsmagazine Stern.
Beck's Schwan song?
Beck's decision to back Schwan's candidacy seems to have backfired
Beck has insisted that his party will maintain its distance from the Left, but voters are skeptical.
In a poll taken by the German public television station ZDF, 60 percent of those asked said they didn't believe the party chairman on this issue.
Moreover, only 15 percent of respondents in that survey said they wanted to see Beck as the Social Democrats' candidate in the next general election.
But the FORSA poll also put support for the Left party at 15 percent, its highest showing ever and 1 percent better than the previous week.
That suggests the SPD is caught between a rock and a hard place. Left-leaning voters are deserting the party because it is not progressive enough, while moderate ones reject the very idea of a coalition with those on the far left.
Manliness and members
Many members have turned their backs on the SPD
The SPD has long-term structural problems. Support from the party's core working-class constituency has been declining for years amidst SPD attempts to position itself in the political center.
The party is particular weak among men. In the FORSA survey, the SPD polled only 17 percent among German men -- the same as the Left party and only half as well as the conservative CDU/CSU.
Experts say the party is also bleeding card-carrying members -- traditionally one of its strengths.
"In a few days, we'll likely be reading reports that, for the first time in its history, the CDU has more members than the party of Kurt Beck," wrote political scientist Franz Walter in Der Spiegel newsmagazine as the FORSA poll was made public.
No savior in sight
Recent local elections gave the SPD no reason to cheer
Beck's position at the head of the party is becoming increasingly disputed, but unfortunately for the SPD, there are few alternatives.
The party has so far been unable to find a stable replacement for Gerhard Schroeder, the charismatic ex-chancellor who dominated the SPD from 1998 to 2005.
And with the retirement of former Vice Chancellor Franz Muentefering last year, the party lost one of its few leaders capable of stirring enthusiasm in its core constituents.
So for the time being, it remains unclear how or with whom the Social Democrats plan to stop what's become a dizzying free-fall.