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Home Opinion The German election: Why did the SPD fail?
SPD • Germany • Social Democracy

The German election: Why did the SPD fail?

Olaf Cramme - 17 October 2013

The German social democrats are staring into a void as they digest a disappointing electoral result.  The soul-searching has hardly begun

For a number of years now, Germany has been in vogue. Policymakers are keen to understand the resilience and balance of the Rhineland economy – how it manages to keep unemployment low without compromising competitiveness; how it nurtures productive small and medium sized enterprises; or how it prepares its youngsters for the ‘global race’. Politically, Angela Merkel has emerged as the role model for all incumbents who want to ride out the many aftershocks of the global financial crisis and avoid punishment by the electorate. The press call her the “Queen of Europe”. Even Germany’s national football team is seen by many as playing in a superior league (together with Spain of course). The arrival of Mesut Özil has caused frenzy around Arsenal not witnessed for years.

Sadly, this moment of sunshine does not apply to the SPD, one of Europe’s oldest and most powerful social democratic parties. It scored a meagre 25.7% at the general election last month and is now somewhat forced into agonising coalition talks with Merkel’s Christian Democrats – whether they will or won’t join forces will ultimately be put to a members’ vote in an anxious attempt to maintain party unity for a bit longer. Of course, few thought that the SPD had a realistic chance of beating Angela Merkel, but the actual result has been a bitter disappointment. Party strategists and thinkers now stare into an empty space. The bewilderment is real and considerable.

At first glance, this may be understandable. Looking back over the past 12 months, one could argue that the SPD has done nothing particularly wrong. It chose the candidate who was, at the time, one of their most popular and effective politicians (even if the coronation was anything but smart). It put a lot of emphasis on citizen engagement and digital campaigning, trying to take on as many successful Obama-style techniques as possible. Most importantly, the SPD sought to press all the obvious left-of-centre policy buttons: a minimum wage that so many Germans apparently support; a bank levy and tough regulation of the financial industry; tax rises for the rich plus a wealth tax to mitigate feelings of social injustice and to pay for the expansion of full-day schooling and childcare; or legislating for equal pay between men and women. The mandatory commitment to fiscal prudence and the ‘debt brake’ could not miss out either. For the party faithful, this was meant to be a winning formula.

So why, then, did the SPD fail? Four explanations are currently being deployed: First, Peer Steinbrück was not the right candidate in the end. He proved a liability early on when revelations about his discretionary earnings tainted his image. What’s more, his edgy personality could not be reconciled with a party that was longing for cosy collectivism. As a result, there was never a compelling team spirit.

Second, the SPD was still paying the price for its embrace of neoliberalism and Third Way politics. The voters have not yet pardoned the daring reforms and perceived excesses of the Schröder years and do not trust the SPD’s return to its “traditional values” (whatever they mean today).

Third, even if the candidate and the manifesto were convincing in their own right, they did not fit together. The idea that Steinbrück’s economic competence could capture centrist voters while the policy offer would reach out widely on the left did not materialise. In the end, the electorate was confused and doubtful about the party’s real ambitions.

Fourth, Angela Merkel was simply invincible. She successfully demobilised her rivals, unapologetically stamped on social democratic territory and just floated above party politics. Whatever the attack strategy, she would not engage in a serious debate about substance. Thus merely her popularity secured this spectacular triumph.

To be sure, none of these explanations are convincing. Worse still, most of them are deeply misleading or unhelpful. It is hard to see that any other prominent SPD politician would have fared any better than Steinbrück. The thin layer of suitable leaders is a symptom, not the cause, of a deeper malaise. Furthermore, if indeed the electoral crash in 2009 could serve as a handy excuse for allegedly previous mistakes, 2013, after four years in opposition, certainly cannot. Policy-wise, social democrats across Europe are rather in a no-man’s land as opposed to being still stuck in an unreconstructed past – as the many failed centre-left experiments since 2007 have demonstrated. Not least, Germans know well how to distinguish between presidential and parliamentary systems. No doubt that Angel Merkel was by far the CDU’s greatest asset, but the centre-right coalition with the FDP was widely unpopular. The SPD paid a heavy price for failing to exploit this and generate any mood for change.

What about the argument that in these tough and anxious times the Right has a strategic advantage over the Left as it can respond to the conservative bias in today’s politics much more naturally? Again, it is far too defeatist a view: much of Germany is desperate for a new reform agenda that corrects its massive investment deficits; improves failing and mediocre schools as well as other public services; offers new job prospects in a fragile but competitive world economy; tackles the expansion of the low-wage sector, various forms of gender inequalities and widespread problems in social care; or draws to a close a Eurozone crisis which has, in fact, only been put on hold. For the SPD there was plenty to seize upon, even if the odds were stacked against them. Yet in the end its responses to those challenges were not sufficiently compelling; its political project not coherent enough; and its governing idea too vague. The verdict on election day says it all.

If there is already one lesson from the German election, it is this: you cannot rectify programmatic and strategic shortcomings in 12 months when you actually need the full four or five years in opposition to develop a new, compelling political platform. Unlike many other election losers in Europe, the SPD may now have to internalise this when facing the grinds of government, making the task all the harder. But the stakes are the same everywhere: without more policy innovation and a better understanding of the post-crisis environment social democrats are presently going nowhere. The soul-searching of the SPD has hardly begun.

Olaf Cramme is director of Policy Network and a visiting fellow at the European Institute of the London School of Economics

Tags: Germany , Elections , Politics , Olaf Cramme , Opinion , Germany , Peer Steinbrück , SPD , Social Democratic Party of Germany , Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands , Angela Merkel , Christian Democratic Union of Germany , Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands , CDU , CSU , CDU/CSU , Alliance '90/The Greens , Bündnis 90/Die Grünen , Alliance '90 , The Greens , Bündnis 90 , Die Grünen , Free Democratic Party , Freie Demokratische Partei , FDP , Red-Green Coalition , Alternative für Deutschland , AfD , Sigmar Gabriel ,

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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