Until a few months ago, Germany’s centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) were polling so badly that many had written off the possibility that they would be part of the next government.
Fast-forward to Sunday’s vote and the SPD has emerged winner of the tight race as the biggest party, in part thanks to a weakened conservative camp that struggled to convince voters without Angela Merkel.
After being the junior coalition partner under the CDU-CSU conservative alliance in three out of four Merkel governments, the SPD led by Olaf Scholz could now be far better placed to implement their agenda.
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“Many experts thought (the SPD) was more or less finished and ready to go into opposition to heal its wounds,” said Sudha David-Wilp, a political scientist at the German Marshall Fund think tank in Berlin.
Germany’s oldest political party, founded in 1863, had appeared to be on a downward slope for nearly two decades.
This was partly down to former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s sweeping labour reforms of the 2000s, which reduced unemployment but also slashed jobless benefits and left the SPD deeply divided.
The party was plagued by infighting between centrists and left wingersmafter being worn down by years of coalitions with the conservatives.
‘King with no country’
The SPD suffered a crushing defeat in Germany’s last election in 2017, followed by another slap in face at European parliamentary elections in 2019.
The SPD’s decision to go into a coalition with the conservatives again in 2017 was deeply unpopular with many grassroots members and led to another rift within the party.
It went through two new leaders in the space of two years- Martin Schulz and Andrea Nahles – before finally settling on a duo of relatively unknown left-wingers, thwarting the ambitions of the more moderate Scholz.
But when it came to choosing a chancellor candidate for the 2021 election, the party decided to gamble on Scholz’s reputation for stability and good crisis management.
German Finance Minister, Vice-Chancellor and the Social Democratic SPD Party’s candidate for chancellor Olaf Scholz waves as he is applauded by fellow SPD grandees at a meeting at the party’s headquarters in Berlin on September 27th. Photo: Odd ANDERSEN / POOL / AFP
As vice chancellor and finance minister under Merkel, Scholz stood by her side as a solid presence through crises including the Covid-19 pandemic.
When the SPD nominated Scholz for the top job in August 2020, the party was polling on around 14-15 percent.
“I want to be chancellor,” he kept repeating in his famous monotone, drawing mockery from the media who labelled him “14-percent Olaf” or the “king with no country”.
He set a goal of 20 percent, arguing that social democratic parties in Denmark, Sweden and Finland had gone on to head governments after achieving similar scores.
A year later, no one is laughing any more.
Sense of unity
Hailing Sunday’s result as a “great success” for his party, Scholz said voters “want there to be a change in government and… want the next chancellor to be called Olaf Scholz.”
But observers say Scholz’s success is less down to his personal appeal and more a side effect of the weaknesses of his two main rivals for the chancellery, gaffe-prone conservative Armin Laschet and inexperienced Annalena Baerbock of the Greens.
Scholz, 63, does not have the natural charisma of previous SPD chancellors like Willy Brandt (1969-1974), Helmut Schmidt (1974-1982) or Gerhard Schroeder (1998-2005).
But having successfully positioned himself as the true heir to Merkel, who remains immensely popular as her 16-year reign comes to an end, Scholz embodies a quality that many Germans hold close to their hearts: stability.
He also ran a solid campaign, focusing on the SPD’s core proposals of a minimum hourly wage of 12 euros ($14), higher taxes for the wealthy and a promise of affordable housing for all.
Finally, Scholz managed to maintain a sense of unity within his party at a time when the conservatives were at odds on the course to take after Merkel.
His inspiring campaign has shown that positive leadership matters.
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) September 27, 2021
That unity will be put to the test in upcoming coalition negotiations, with Scholz expected to try to build a ruling majority with two smaller parties, the ecologist Greens and the liberal Free Democrats.
But for now, as Der Spiegel newspaper put it following the election, “The SPD celebrates its resurrection”.
By Isabelle LE PAGE