'We're Standing on a Giant Pile of Manure' Can a New Leadership Save the SPD?

After its worst election result in the postwar period, Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party has hastily replaced its leadership with a younger generation of politicians. But the new leaders will struggle to find an identity for the SPD, which has lost half its voters since 1998.


It is 5 p.m. on Monday Sept. 28 as the politicians on whom Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party is pinning its hopes meet in a room on the fifth floor of party headquarters in Berlin. Andrea Nahles, Olaf Scholz, Klaus Wowereit and Sigmar Gabriel are sitting at a round table in Nahles' office. The last few rays of sunshine on an otherwise gray day shine through the window.

"Well, let me begin," says Nahles, a rising star in the party's left wing who is also the youngest member of the group. The three men nod politely. "You know that it's up to us now," says Nahles. More nodding. The meeting of the trustees of the Social Democratic Party's estate can begin.

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Polling stations throughout Germany closed 23 hours earlier. What the election workers discovered when it came time to count the vote has brought down an entire world. The world of Germany's social democratic movement no longer exists, at least not in its previous form.

A Tragic Milestone

The SPD, Germany's oldest, proudest and most sentimental party, experienced another milestone in its history on Sunday Sept. 27, when Germans went to the polls to elect a new parliament. It emerged from the election with the worst result since the founding of West Germany, even worse than its previous all-time low of 28.8 percent in 1953. The SPD's new all-time worst result is 23 percent -- a result that will be forever linked to the name of Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Although Steinmeier, who was the SPD's chancellor candidate, is responsible for a loss of more than 11 percentage points, he was quick to lay claim to the chairmanship of the SPD parliamentary group on election night. He did not follow in the footsteps of his friend, Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück, who announced after the election that he would not be continuing in his position as deputy leader of the SPD.

Now the four politicians assembled in Nahles' office want to prevent Steinmeier from taking things a step further and claiming the party leadership. They have received appeals from all segments of the party, from members shocked by the notion that the people mainly to blame for the debacle, SPD Chairman Franz Müntefering, Steinmeier and Steinbrück, could simply be allowed to continue as if nothing had happened.

Young Uprising

The uprising of the party's younger blood begins -- albeit timidly -- at 5 p.m. on Monday.

"It's now time for us to figure this out on our own," says Nahles. She tries to sum up the catastrophe in a few words, but is not entirely successful. She quickly moves on, getting straight to the point: "Which of us could assume the position of party chair?" She looks at the group.

Olaf Scholz, the current German labor minister, says he isn't interested.

"Klaus, what about you?" she asks. Like Nahles, Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit is a member of the party's left wing, and he is her personal favorite for the position of chair, but he too isn't interested.

Wowereit tells Nahles that he wants to be reelected as mayor of Berlin in the fall of 2011, which will be difficult enough as it is. If he is now named SPD chairman, he says, it will only add fodder to a campaign his rivals, particularly the Springer publishing group, which publishes the influential tabloid Bild, would undoubtedly launch against him. "Then they'll write: Wowereit pays more attention to the party than to Berlin."

'A Giant Pile of Manure'

Nahles also doesn't want the job. At 39, she is the one with the most time to wait for her opportunity. Like Wowereit, she is also thinking about the media's likely response to Andrea Nahles as party chairwoman. The press, she says, would seize the opportunity to accuse the party of drifting completely to the left, or to print headlines like: The Witch Has Taken Over. She fears reactions like that.

Now everyone is looking at the fourth person in the group.

"Well, I'd do it," Sigmar Gabriel, who is the current environment minister, says immediately. "But we have to do this together." The other three nod.

"We are standing on a giant pile of manure," one of the four says later, summing up the situation. "And now we have to figure out how we can work together to shovel it out of the way." The analogy is almost too positive when one considers the real state of Germany's Social Democrats.

No Longer Cool

On Sept. 27, 1998, when former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder began a new social democratic era with his election victory, more than 20 million Germans voted for the SPD. At the time, the party was surrounded by an aura of modernity. It was fashionable to vote for the Social Democrats, which was seen as the party of economic and social change.

On Sept. 27, 2009, exactly 11 years later, only a little more than 10 million of those 20 million voters still supported the SPD. Many members of the party base, particularly those who belong to lower socioeconomic groups, had been put off by its record in government. On that fateful Sunday, 5.2 million Germans voted for the far-left Left Party, which is the result of a 2007 merger of the Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor to the East German communist party, and WASG, a group of trade unionists and disgruntled former SPD members based in western Germany

There is very little that Germans associate with the SPD today, and certainly not the hope of change. Nowadays, few things are as uncool as voting SPD, as evidenced by the fact that it suffered its greatest loss on Sunday among young voters: a drop of 21 percentage points.


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