The Social Democrats: Seeking to regain lost support | Election | DW | 24.08.2009
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The Social Democrats: Seeking to regain lost support

In a last-ditch effort, Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) hope to win back voters by promising millions of new jobs. But that hasn't necessarily boosted the SPD’s credibility.

SPD members at a party conference where a banner reads: For a social and democratic Germany

The SPD is hoping to stage a comeback

Germany's oldest political party, the SPD, set out in 1875 to become an advocate of the working class and all underprivileged people in society. Although the party officially rebranded itself as a "party of the people" – and not just the working class – in 1959, it's still widely associated with being a defender of social justice and equality.

In postwar Germany, the SPD was also for a long time the largest party, ruling the country between 1969 and 1982 and then again between 1998 and 2005. But since 2005, it has been stuck in a reluctant grand coalition with the conservatives, and that has seen the party’s membership and popularity ratings enter a free fall. Current opinion polls see the Social Democrats trailing the conservative CDU by a wide margin.

In a desperate race to regain lost ground ahead of the general election, the SPD's candidate for chancellor, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, surprised the media with a headline-grabbing promise incorporated in the party’s manifesto. He announced that the Social Democrats would create four million new jobs over the next decade, which – if seen against current jobless levels – would mean that the country could boast full employment 10 years from now.

Fiscal and environmental policy

SPD hopeful Frank-Walter Steinmeier mingling with coal miners in Germany

SPD hopeful Frank-Walter Steinmeier mingling with coal miners in Germany

In a bid to lure away voters both from the green and far-left spectrum of the political landscape, the SPD in its "Plan for Germany" says its program to foster energy-saving and environmentally-friendly industries could employ two million people. Another million would be needed in the health system and especially geriatric care as the population ages dramatically. The remaining one million jobs would emerge in the service and trade sector. The party has faced massive criticism from other political players who insist that creating four million new jobs is totally unrealistic.

In terms of energy policy, the SPD wants to reduce the country's dependence on oil and get half of its power from renewable sources by 2030. Its position on nuclear energy remains unchanged. The Social Democrats stick to what they agreed while governing with the Green party – the complete phase-out of nuclear power, meaning the decommissioning of all remaining nuclear power stations in the country by 2020.

Referring to the current economic crisis and the mounting public debt burden, Germany's SPD is categorically opposed to any major tax cuts in the next legislature. It actually plans to raise the top rate of taxation for big earners to 47 percent from 45 percent of incomes at present. On the other hand, it promises an income tax bonus of 300 euros ($430) for people who do not file a claim for rebates. This is not a nice social gesture, but rather an attempt to cut red tape.

Defender of social justice

The SPD is hoping to appeal to families by offering to raise the tax break for each child per household by 200 euros. The party has also presented itself as a passionate fighter for a minimum wage of 7.50 euros per hour across all sectors of the economy.

Poor despite a job reads this man's t-shirt

A German trade unionist rallying for a minimum wage

It would also extend until 2015 a federal subsidy that aims to ease the transition from work to retirement by offering financial support to workers who go on reduced hours. The SPD also repeats its demand that first degrees at universities and colleges should not be subject to study fees which are currently in place in a number of CDU-governed German states.

Foreign policy

On the foreign policy front, the SPD likes to portray itself as a party that banks on diplomacy rather than military intervention. The issue of Germany's peacekeeping missions abroad under United Nations mandates has led to many a heated debate within both the leadership and the rank and file.

German soldiers in Afghanistan with locals watching in the background

A German soldier patrolling in Afghanistan's Faizabad region

This goes in particular for the German armed forces' involvement in the NATO-led Afghanistan mission. It was senior SPD member Peter Struck who, in his former capacity as the country's defense minister, claimed that Germany's interests had to be defended at the Hindu Kush. Many SPD members wouldn't necessarily subscribe to this point of view any longer, as the war against the Taliban continues with a numerous setbacks for NATO allies.

Steinmeier insists, however, that reconstruction in Afghanistan remains a top priority and will need to be secured militarily in future. But he says that German troops will withdraw from Afghanistan sometime within the next decade. The Bundeswehr's involvement there has never had strong backing from the Germans, especially now, with the number of dead and wounded soldiers rising and reports of fresh attacks making news on an almost daily basis.

Editor: Deanne Corbett

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