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13th December 2017

The SPD have a choice: radical reform or terminal decline

Either become a party-of-the-people à la Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour or drift into irrelevance

In the halls and corridors of the Reichstag building, Germany’s second largest political force, the Social Democrats are traipsing around, discussing their future. Germany’s second largest and eldest political party is in internal chaos.

After Merkel’s coalition talks with the Free Democrats and Greens collapsed a few weeks ago, pressure has been growing on the SPD to return to government in another ‘Grand Coalition’ with Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats for the third time. However, the SPD suffered its worst electoral performance since 1949 gathering just 20 per cent of the vote, and many want the party to go into opposition to recover, and to re-establish itself as an alternative to Merkel.

With growing pressure from the President and public opinion shifting towards wanting a stable government, the SPD is trapped between a rock and a hard place, with a clear a majority of its members showing they oppose returning to a ‘Grand Coalition’.

When Martin Schulz, the former President of the European Parliament, became leader of the SPD in March of 2017 there was a renewed sense of optimism that the party could win the election and finally unseat Merkel, however that quickly changed and after a few weeks the CDU where back with a comfortable lead in the polls.

After a wave of defeats in state elections in 2017, the SPD lost control of North Rhine-Westphalia, its traditional heartland — and Martin Schulz’s home state — to the CDU, the SPD was less focused on winning the election, but actually surviving it and remaining relevant in German politics.

Now the SPD look set to return to government with Merkel’s CDU and this could further divide the party and increase its unpopularity. The party, like many other Centre-left parties across Europe, and are in decline. During the election campaign, many commentators suggested that the SPD was trying to style itself as both Emmanuel Macron and Jeremy Corbyn and get the best of both worlds — they failed.

Many within the German population saw Merkel and Schulz as two very similar candidates during the election, this was further highlighted in the TV debate between Merkel and Schulz. That is why the four minor parties in Germany: Die Linke, the Greens, Alternative for Germany and the Free Democrats. They all offered radical policies to that of both the CDU and SPD who now both firmly occupy the centre ground of German party politics. Die Linke and the Greens are attracting lots of frustrated and alienated SPD voters, who are looking more radical left-wing alternative, with the party being seen as out of touch.

Schulz, in an attempt to save to salvage his position as leader of the SPD, stated after the results were announced that the SPD would return to opposition and would not seek another ‘Grand Coalition’ with the CDU/CSU alliance. However, as a result of the Free Democrats walking out of coalition talks with Merkel and the Greens, the situation has changed drastically. Many within the SPD, public and the institutions of Germany have put pressure on Schulz to change his mind, and after talks with the German President and fellow senior SPD member Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Schulz has opened the door to talks and a potential return to a ‘Grand Coalition’ and push the SPD into a corner.

For the SPD, they are now trapped between Merkel and returning to the polls which could see their vote share drop even further, and could see the Alternative for Germany party gain, which is not a good prospect for them. So for Martin Schulz, this is make or break for his party and German social democracy.

He had hoped that time in opposition would allow the party to recover and for many within the SPD ranks, an opportunity to follow Jeremy Corbyn’s lead and give the party a huge left wing makeover led by Merkel’s former Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Andrea Nahles a veteran left-winger, she now serves as the SPD’s leader in the Bundestag, a key position next to party leader Martin Schulz, nevertheless now that possibility looks impossible.

With the likelihood of a return to a ‘Grand Coalition’, the SPD is well and truly stuck in a state of terminal decline, with an unpopular leader and the unshakable image of Merkel’s lapdogs.

The future of the SPD is now unclear, but it doesn’t look good. The SPD, if they are to ever recover need to follow a Jeremy Corbyn style revival in opposition, but this isn’t going to be possible. Regardless of the outcome, the SPD will back up the Merkel’s new coalition in some form whether it would be a minority government or another ‘Grand Coalition’, they are likely to be still be seen as Merkel’s lapdogs.

In order for the SPD to survive a new election or four years as Merkel’s political ally, Martin Schulz needs to resign and let someone new take his place to try to do what he failed to do: rebrand the SPD as an effective opposition and alternative to Merkel and her CDU/CSU alliance.

In order for the SPD to survive, they need a leader like Willy Brandt, who was pro-European while also focused on making the ordinary lives of Germans better. At the moment the SPD is seen as too pro-European and not focused on domestic German politics; their leadership is seen as out of touch. The SPD now face a choice: adapt or die.

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