First Aid For The Social Democrats: Rising Star Paves Path to a Family Friendly Germany

By Kerstin Kullmann

Germany's youngest state minister is a fresh face in the recently announced shadow cabinet for Social Democratic candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier. In contrast to the current family minister, Manuela Schwesig is also certain politicians cannot convince Germans to have more children.

The elderly lady has not quite figured out who the young woman sitting on her sofa is.

"Does your family come to visit you?" the younger woman asks the older kindly.

"Oh yes, my nephews come by and I also have my dog, Mopsi," the grandmother replies.

"How lovely," the young woman smiles.

A fresh face: Foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his proposed minister for family affairs, Manuela Schwesig, at the announcement of the SPD's shadow cabinet last week.
AP

A fresh face: Foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his proposed minister for family affairs, Manuela Schwesig, at the announcement of the SPD's shadow cabinet last week.

The older woman leans back in her chair. She may well have assumed that this pleasant young person was a particularly friendly nurse. But in fact, the younger woman is no nurse -- even if she is is bringing first aid of sorts to Germany's center-left Social Democrat Party (SPD). The woman on the sofa is Manuela Schwesig, minister for social affairs and family for the eastern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and one of the rising stars of the SPD, the party that currently forms a ruling grand coalition government with German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU). Last week, in the lead up to the German general elections in September, Schwesig was named as part of Frank-Walter Steinmeier's 18-member shadow cabinet. The 35-year-old mother-of-one with an increasingly high profile, who also happens to be one of Germany's youngest ministers at state level, will be responsible for family policy. That is, if the ailing SPD makes it back into power.

And Schwesig was at the confused old lady's home together with a state nurse because, as she explains later in a nearby cafe, she really enjoys these kinds of visits. This way, you can really see how people live, she says, and how they make their decisions. Both insights are very important for a politician, she notes. When Schwesig talks like this, it could come across as either naïve or maybe stretching the truth a bit. But it doesn't. Rather, she comes across as modest, maybe a little idealistic. And idealism is hard to find in the politically beleaguered SPD right now.

Watching the holidaying families at play outside, Schwesig goes on to talk about how making the decision to have children is an intensely personal one, a decision made between two people in private -- and one that cannot be influenced by any magic formula politicians think they might have come up with. "Parental payouts plus parental leave for fathers equals a higher birth rate?" Schwesig asks, shaking her head meaningfully. "It just doesn't work like that."

She says she never wants to formulate a policy that only addresses the German birth rate. No, she never wants to "swing the demographic bludgeon around like Ursula von der Leyen."

A Serious Alternative To The Current Minister

And that is the heart of this matter. Because in the upcoming elections, Schwesig is clearly supposed to play the anti-von der Leyen. She will be a serious alternative to the current German minister for family affairs. And she is serious. Schwesig is younger, originally from East Germany, has one child and is a Social Democrat, which means she is left-leaning in her politics. Von der Leyen, 50 and from western Germany, has seven children and a conservative political outlook. Schwesig may be her first serious competition.

Current family minister, Ursula von der Leyen: The SPD's Schwesig will be an antidote for the popular CDU politician.
AP

Current family minister, Ursula von der Leyen: The SPD's Schwesig will be an antidote for the popular CDU politician.

For some time now the SPD have been looking for a female politician they can play against von der Leyen on family issues. Over the past few months Franz Müntefering, the 69-year-old chairman of the party, has been taking on the task. But it's a little irritating seeing someone who is almost old enough to be in retirement talking about building more kindergartens. In fact, one of the hardest questions the SPD has had to answer over the past few months was how do they fight against a politician who is part of their ruling coalition and who had actually championed many of their own suggestions -- things like more parental leave for fathers and more money for those on parental leave. How do you fight with a sometime-ally? And who do you send out to fight with that person?

A Dinner Date with the Foreign Minister

Last October, Schwesig became Germany's youngest state minister. Shortly afterwards, Steinmeier, who is Germany's foreign minister, invited her to dinner in Berlin -- he wanted to know more about this political talent. During the dinner, the pair spoke about their children -- Steinmeier has a 13-year-old daughter, Schwesig a two-year-old son. They spoke about Steinmeier's constituency, the eastern state of Brandenburg, where Schwesig was born, and generally, they warmed to one another.

And as the discussion turned to family policy, it turned out that Schwesig might just be onto something with which the SPD could battle von der Leyen: She is genuinely dissatisfied with the other government policies relating to womens' issues. Schwesig said she thought that von der Leyen has no sense for the real hardships families face and that she is trapped in her own romantic visions. Steinmeier was impressed.

Schwesig also told him that she too felt that parental leave for fathers and parental pay were important support mechanisms. But she also got the impression that, what with all this concern about Germany's low birth rates, that other equally important issues were being forgotten. Issues such as child poverty, the difficulties faced by single parents and poor education facilities for younger children.

Never Mind the Birth Rate, Worry About Child Poverty

Von der Leyen is the daughter of the late German politician Ernst Albrecht and grew up in Belgium and the state of Lower Saxony. And she has always had a reputation for progressive family policies. But she has also always had the reputation of not paying much attention to matters that are remote from her own life experiences. Broken families and solo parenting were issues she only came to address later in her political career. In fact, sometimes it felt like the well-educated and childless were really her biggest problem. Which is why in this election von der Leyen may be in danger of being presented as a feel-good-minister standing up for the upper-middle class. By contrast, Schwesig could come across as a politician who understands real needs and families struggling with poverty.

Schwesig was born in Frankfurt an der Oder in what was then East Germany in 1974. Although her father, a locksmith, lost his job after the fall of the Berlin Wall and had to re-train, she had a pleasant childhood. Schwesig studied finance, and in 2000 she moved to Schwerin, the capital of Mecklenberg-Western Pomerania with her husband. It was there that her political career with the SPD really began to take off. Living in the state, which is one of Germany's most economically depressed, she had to deal with the economic realities of tougher family lives first hand.

The state is a nightmare for family policy; indeed, it would be hard to find anywhere else with darker demographics. Since 1990, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania has lost 15 percent of its inhabitants, many of the inter-state emigrants being young, educated women. Around 36 percent of all of the state's children grow up in families that survive on meagre unemployment benefits. And almost a thousand children a year are removed from their families because their parents cannot, or do not, properly take care of them. In fact, you could say that Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania is something of a boot camp for a young politician just getting involved in social issues.

Child's Death From Starvation More Than Just 'Tough Luck'

Schwesig has seen the direct results of such problems. In November 2007 she was the SPD's representative at an enquiry looking into the death by starvation of a five-year-old girl. And she was there when the mayor, Norbert Claussen (CDU), said that the city had just "had tough luck in this case." That mayor eventually left. After Schwesig took office as minister for family affairs in the state, one of the first pieces of legislation she signed stipulated that parents who ditched appointments with their children's doctor would be penalized.

Eventually, the conversation turns to Germany's general attitude toward families, and children. Schwesig talks about a train trip she took last winter with her husband and son: the children's compartment that was too small, the annoyed fellow travellers. She rolls her eyes and says that after that trip it became clear to her that there were indeed people in Germany who would shut down a kindergarten in their neighborhood just because it was too noisy. And she wouldn't mind changing that kind of attitude.

This is another thing that Schwesig does have in common with her political rival, von der Leyen. The CDU minister has also tried to encourage a less hostile attitude toward children, singing nursery songs, saying that the noise of kids playing should be considered music to one's ears and even doing a children's dance in front of fellow politicians. But that hasn't really changed anything. So how can Schwesig think she will be able change anything when the more experienced politician has already tried so hard?

In reply, Schwesig says her hero is the outspoken former SPD politician, Regine Hildebrandt, who died of breast cancer in 2001. And one of Hildebrant's best known sayings? "Just don't tell me it can't be done!"

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