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Why can’t Germany’s Social Democrats pull themselves together?

Rachel Loxton
Rachel Loxton - [email protected]
Why can’t Germany’s Social Democrats pull themselves together?
Election posters in Bremen. Photo; DPA

Bremen, Germany’s smallest state, goes to the polls on Sunday in a regional election, that’s set to see the Social Democrats continue their downfall. Why can’t the party pull itself together?


Campaign posters for the European elections are adorning lampposts nationwide, but in Bremen, there’s double the amount of desperate politicians' faces plastered around.

That’s because an election in the city state, the smallest of Germany’s 16 federal regions, is taking place at the same time as the EU vote on Sunday.

It could result in a big change for the Hanseatic city-state — a shift that reflects the wider political situation in Germany.

Located on the river Weser in north west Germany with a population of 550,000, Bremen has been ruled by the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) for more than 70 years. But polls show the party will lose big on Sunday and could be overtaken by the the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) for the first time.

This would likely trigger a new power-sharing agreement that will impact German politics in general.

According to a poll published by major German broadcaster ZDF the CDU will take 26 percent of the vote, with the SPD scooping 24.5 percent. Meanwhile, the Greens will take 18 percent, the Left (Die Linke) 12 percent, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) five percent and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) seven percent.

In the last election in 2015, the SPD gained 32.8 percent of the vote, and the CDU 22.4 percent.

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A view of the harbour in Bremen. Photo: DPA

'Permanent crisis'

Whatever the result of the SPD in Bremen on Sunday, the party is set to lose a lot of support. So why is this Social Democratic stronghold slipping away from them? What’s gone wrong?

“The Social Democrats are in a permanent crisis,” political scientist Dr Gero Neugebauer of the Free University in Berlin told The Local.

To understand why, political experts say you have to go back in time: the kiss of death for the party started two decades ago when the labour market reforms were created by the SPD under then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, said Neugebauer.

The “Agenda 2010” measures included the extremely unpopular "Hartz IV" unemployment benefits — a low minimum payment afforded to jobseekers after their first year out of work, and short-term employment contracts which offer little protection to workers.   

These low paid jobs may have led to a drop in unemployment rates, which is hailed as a success story, but it’s also led to millions of Germans struggling to make ends meet.

“The problem was that the majority of the Social Democrats' electorate thought that the party had betrayed its core values like social justice, social security and it was no longer ready to give its voters the support they need,” said Neugebauer.

The move even split members of the party.

“Many voters and party members still struggle with these decisions,” an SPD insider told The Local. “At the same time the party refused to discuss these decisions back then because they would have had to admit they had done something wrong.”

But commentators say the social reforms are not the only reason that the Social Democrats, led by Andrea Nahles, have become unpopular in strongholds like Bremen, as well as across Germany.

Andrea Nahles on the European election campaign trail. Photo: DPA

Germany’s political system has changed in the last few years with the decline of the so-called Volkspartei — the people’s parties —  those are the CDU and its sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) as well as the SPD.

Voters have instead been flocking to smaller parties such as the Greens, who are riding high at the moment, and the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party that's also experienced a meteoric rise in the last six years.

But society has also changed due to many factors, including globalization.

“The big social groups who voted conservative or Social Democrats or the liberals — they’ve vanished,” said Neugebauer.

The rise of a strong far-right party, such as the AfD, has clearly marked a shift in German politics.

“You have this emergence of a new right-wing party which claims to be the only one that is going to defend the rights of German workers — and only 'German' workers,” emphasized Neugebauer, illustrating the party's anti-immigration stance.

“You don’t find a worker who belongs to a trades union who’s going to vote for Democrats, he’s going to vote for right wing populist AfD or for the CDU.”

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What does the SPD want?

It's hard to know exactly what the SPD stands for. Part of the party’s problem is that Merkel’s conservatives have co-opted many of the centre-left’s ideas, such as the introduction of the minimum wage to the establishment of same-sex marriage.

Plus Merkel’s move to the left on refugee issues also led to voters feeling confused over where parties stand.

But instead of carving out a different path and showing voters exactly what they want and stand for, the Social Democrats have been marred by splits.

This was shown when the youth wing of the party revolted against the SPD joining the CDU in a ‘grand coalition’ after the 2017 federal elections.

And then again, just a few weeks ago, the SPD youth wing leader Kevin Kühnert grabbed the attention of the media when he gave an interview saying luxury car maker BMW should be nationalized and the property rental market abolished, exposing splinters in the party.

“They have no strategy and it shows,” the party insider said. “The SPD doesn’t fight for the people anymore but it doesn’t know what it wants.

“They also seem to be too similar to the Greens when they need to carve their own way.”

Bremen is a battleground this Sunday. Photo: DPA

No match for Merkel

The party has also struggled to offer up any outstanding politicians, and stand out next to its senior coalition partner.

The CDU’s Merkel, who has been Chancellor since 2005, is known on the world stage. Yet the SPD has gone through a succession of party leaders, none of whom are particularly memorable.

“If you look at the media, they want to talk about individuals,” said Neugebauer. “It’s personality politics.

“But the Social Democrats have failed to present authoritative leaders, they have had no one they can offer as an alternative for Merkel.”

So can the SPD ever get its footing back?

Neugebauer said he doesn’t believe the days of the Volkspartei being able to hoover up about 70 percent of the electorate's vote between them will return.

“Times have changed, voters behaviours have changed, voters are volatile,” he said.

“Lower middle class people say the Social Democrats don’t offer them anything so they don’t vote at all, or they vote for the far-right to punish the political elite.”

However, he said the SPD could win back some votes if they work out what they want and consider new power alliances, rather than sticking with the Christian Democrats at a federal level.

“The SPD has to change,” he said. “At the moment they are trying to go back to politics of social justice.. Some of them believe they could revive old social democratic values."

“They need to find a way to discuss what they really want, what they can afford, what resources they have, what they could achieve and they should then sit back and think about a new perspective for power.

"That means possible alliances with the reds (the Left party) and the Greens.”


Traditionally a working class city known for its strong cultural and academic scene, Bremen has plummeted from being one of Germany’s booming states to one of its poorest and has the country’s highest unemployment rate, at 9.7%. Perhaps this is one reason that voters are seeking a new course.

The CDU’s Carsten Meyer-Heder, who is currently leading in the polls against the SPD's Carsten Sieling who is city mayor, says he wants to change the current image of Bremen and get the city back to its best.

The SPD's Carsten Sieling and the CDU's Carsten Meyer-Heder in Bremen. Photo: DPA

Commentators say the result could force the struggling Social Democrats to team up with the Greens and the left wing Die Linke.

But if the Greens choose to enter into a power-sharing deal with the Bremen's CDU, shockwaves will be felt all the way to the government in Berlin.

But the SPD's result in Bremen has an impact on Germany, too.

“If the SPD has bad results in Bremen and the European parliamentary elections there will be a big uproar in the party,” the Social Democratic insider told The Local.

It could lead to calls for Nahles to step down from her post as leader of the parliament faction, and as party leader. It could also prompt the SPD to walk out of the 'grand coalition' in Berlin which would trigger new federal elections.

This spells lots of changes for the German political landscape and for the Social Democrats. Are they up to the challenge?


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