Germany’s SDP and the sleeping beauty syndrome
It is almost certain that the next European parliamentary elections will not be favorable to the old parties of the European left. Polls show that the biggest group on the left, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats (S&D), will lose seats – and this is not a novelty. Since the 2014 European Parliamentary elections, support for the S&D has progressively dropped. In many EU countries, the elections will give momentum to the more “sovereignist” parties. In France and in Italy, two of the most well-known nationalist parties in Europe, Front National and the League, might come out of the elections as the leading parties in their countries. The League is expected to receive around 30% of the vote, while Front National is forecast to win around 22%. Yet such parties will not triumph in all countries. In Germany, for instance, the traditional center-right party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) will receive an ample majority of votes (around 30%).
However, only few parties of the S&D group will perform well at the next EP elections. The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) is no exception. Yet, the reasons are not exclusively related to the growing popularity of radical right-wing movements, such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. The SDP’s poor electoral results in recent years have deeper roots.
More than 155 years old, the SPD is the oldest party in Europe. Having survived a monarchy and the Nazi regime, it contributed to modernize West Germany, appeased cold-war tensions and inspired similar movements in other European member states.
Now, the party languishes behind the Greens and, as things stand, can only aim to be the third German party in the European elections (15% of the vote), just before the AfD (12% of the vote). Beyond the European elections, the SPD is also running for local elections in the city-state of Bremen, where the party has been in power for 74 years and will have to face autumn elections in Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia. Unfortunately, the Social Democrats are not projected to do well in any of these electoral appointments.
The origin of such a decline could be related to the party’s decision to cooperate with the CDU. Since 2005, after losing national elections, the SPD has repeatedly entered into coalition governments with the CDU and its sister party, the Christian Social Union. While this allowed the SPD to be part of various German governments, it also resulted in many compromises, which pushed the party towards more centered positions, especially in the definition of social and economic policies – the signature trick of the SPD. By the end of this year, the party will have to decide whether being in the governing coalition is still worth it, since many of the traditional voters on the left have ended up supporting other political groups.
Against this backdrop, some could argue that although Germany has a strong economy, in 2019 its GDP will grow less than expected (0.5%), and beyond the GDP, inequality in access to education, health and social services have gone up. Generally, all European countries have experienced mounting internal disparities in recent years, and this trend normally explains why parties on the left are losing legitimacy. They have also been unable to block the rise of neoliberal economic policies. However, economic trends are not the main trigger behind the SDP’s loss of touch with social issues. To date, Germans are among the least anxious about their economic future in the EU. Only 27% of German citizens, compared to 35% in the EU, are worried about the economy.
The SPD’s loss of consensus appears to be less related to the party’s capacity to provide adequate welfare programs by shaping the economic policies of the country and more to its failure to interpret society’s needs. For instance, according to a study developed by the Bertelsmann-Stiftung, Germans consider addressing climate change a top policy priority at both the EU and national level. In this respect, it is easy to understand why parties such as the Greens have seen their popularity growing at the expense of the SPD. Unlike the Social Democratic Party, which is perceived as a catchall party that is unable to commit to one specific cause, the Greens have a more focused mandate and the climate issue is central in their agenda. Climate change is taking 40% of the party resources and interests, followed by the need to secure peace (19%), protect citizens’ right (10%) and fight terrorism (10%). Not only are the Greens expected to be the second party in the European parliamentary elections (19% of the vote), but they have won elections in Bavaria and Hesse in October 2018 and have seats in 14 of Germany’s 16 state legislatures.
Even when it comes to issues that are normally related to the left, many voters do not trust the SPD and back other parties. For instance, among those few Germans who are anxious about their future economic condition, the majority supports Alternative for Germany and only 27% votes for the SPD. This is because AfD provides a clear and simple argument to face negative economic trends, which is “Germans first”. Instead, the SPD’s left identity does not correspond to the party’s political conduct in recent years. For this reason, the SPD crisis is not directly related to the rise of sovereignism and although the new SPD leader, Andrea Nahles, has decided to take a firm stance against far right forces, calling for left-wing reforms and promising a radical renewal, the party has not recovered yet.
A sleeping beauty syndrome affects the party, which like many other EU parties on the left, has been in a slumber for too long. It will probably take more than cosmetic internal reforms to recover credibility. What is certain today is that without a convincing and renovated narrative, the problem of the SPD will soon become existential.