Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Struggles of the German SPD

By Michael Miebach
Policy Network
The SPD is still trapped somewhere between 22 and 27 per cent. The discontent with the conservative-liberal government has simply translated into growing support for the Greens.

Upon his election as SPD party chairman in November 2009, Sigmar Gabriel made an evocative plea for his party to regain “discursive hegemony” in Germany.

On this front, it can be said that his first year in office was not very successful. In major political debates the SPD took up squishy positions and did not make its voice heard. This was in marked contrast to the distinct positions of its opponents.

A good example of this is the highly emotional conflict about building a costly underground train station in the city of Stuttgart in Baden-Württemberg. Tens of thousands protested against “Stuttgart 21”, bringing up general questions of democratic participation and the necessity of large infrastructure projects. The incumbent CDU passionately defended the venture, while the Greens aligned themselves with the masses on the street.

And the social-democrats? They are in opposition in Baden-Württemberg, but unfortunately they had been supporting the initiative since the nineties. Thus, they were stuck in the middle. To escape insignificance, they demanded a popular vote on Stuttgart 21, only to find out that just 5 per cent of the voters feel the SPD best represents their opinion.

Similar patterns apply to the ongoing debate on integration, on the military operation in Afghanistan, or on nuclear energy. The German weekly “Der Spiegel” nicknamed the SPD a “Pudding-Party”. What is worse, political talk shows on television nowadays go ahead without social democratic guests – much to the disgust of party officials.

Instead of shaping public discourse, Sigmar Gabriel’s first year had all the hallmarks of a coming to terms with the past. Yes, gently turning away from the socio-economic reforms (“Agenda 2010”) the SPD pursued in government might have helped to appease parts of the membership. But this rollback further undermined what the SPD is missing most: credibility. Even more important, it made it impossible for the SPD to claim responsibility for Germany’s strong economic recovery.

Crucially, this approach didn’t pay off amongst voters. In the national elections in September 2009, the SPD polled 23 per cent. A year later, the SPD is still trapped somewhere between 22 and 27 per cent. The discontent with the conservative-liberal government has simply translated into growing support for the Greens and if elections were held today, they could expect between 20 and 23 per cent of the votes – twice as much as in 2009!

Hence, Sigmar Gabriel temporarily adopted a strategy of Green-bashing – but to little avail. This is hardly surprising. The SPD doesn’t lack tactical noose, rather it falls short on long-term strategy and political vision.

Looking again at the Green party brings this point home. Whereas the SPD struggles to communicate what it even stands for, the Green Party is confidently promoting its “Green New Deal”, a rather detailed form of ecological capitalism. If the German SPD were to develop an alternative “Red New Deal”, it would require a painful process of clarification: a process which many social democrats still believe is not essential. It appears that there is a widespread view in the SPD that the largest opposition party will automatically become more popular.

Nevertheless, party leaders have started to work on the “vision thing”. There is talk of making “progress”. Yet progress means two things in the SPD: one version sees progress as a necessary evil to preserve the status quo: “If we want to defend our social achievements in a global world, we cannot avoid changing some things.” The second sees progress as a desirable, bolstering process designed to create a better world, true to Barack Obama’s motto “The world as it is, is not the world as it should be”.

The former notion of forward-looking progress could be much more appealing to potential supporters – and voters. However, given the demographic structure of the party it is more likely that the SPD will settle for the conservative status quo.

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