Apart from a handful of sane voices, the initial reaction to the election on 30 November of left-of-centre Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans to head up Germany’s social democrats, the SPD, can only be described as some kind of collective media meltdown. One journalist even declared the party as good as dead. It’s suffice to say that Germany’s political culture isn’t one that easily embraces shocks.
With the history of German democracy in the early 20th century in mind, the reaction was to a degree understandable.
The initial near paroxysm to the election of left-of-centre candidates, however, has in recent days given way to some more nuanced opinion, some of it even positive. The truth, as many commentators have started to discuss, is that Germany’s SPD has been failing for years, winning a historic low of 20.5 per cent in the 2017 national election, down from an already miserable 25.7 per cent in 2013.
Esken and Walter-Borjans have been strong critics of the direction of their party, most notably its role as junior coalition partner to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right CDU/CSU-dominated government. The election of the pair clearly leaves the future of the coalition in doubt. More so after Merkel indicated on Monday that she is not in the slightest bit interested in renegotiating the terms of coalition agreement. Merkel had already previously announced that she will not run for office in the next German election.
Years of uninspired leadership, a broad acceptance of the neoliberal consensus and long periods as Merkel’s junior coalition partner have left the SPD in steady decline since the heady days of the last SPD Chancellor, Gerhard Schöder (who left office back in 2005). Squeezed at first by the left-wing Die Linke, and more recently also by an invigorated Green party and a radical right-wing AfD, the SPD has lost millions of voters.
Leader of the CDU, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has beefed up Merkel’s rejection of renegotiating the coalition agreement by indicating that if the new leadership of the SPD didn’t accept the current coalition deal, the party could leave the government.
The government has recently been criticised for “fetishizing” something nicknamed “black zero”, the notion of a rigidly balanced budget, and for its lack of investment, notably in infrastructure. Esken and Walter-Borjans want to change this, raise the minimum wage from €9 to €12 an hour and create a more ambitious programme to deal with the climate emergency.
The upshot is that new national elections look increasingly likely. If they come in early 2020, Esken and Walter-Borjans will arguably aim to present the electorate with a vastly different SPD programme than anything seen for at least a decade.