by Dr. Frank Michlik, LL.M (Cantab.), Member of the Executive Committee of the SPD Brussels
On 27 September 2009 federal elections were held in Germany. The results for the four parties which will be represented in the Bundestag (Federal Parliament) were as follows:
Die Linke: 11.9%
The CDU/CSU will form a coalition with the Liberals (FDP) for the next German government. The SPD lost 11.2% of votes compared with the last federal elections in 2005 and more than 50% of the absolute votes compared with the 1998 elections (20.2 Mio in 1998, 10.0 Mio in 2009). The worst result for the Social Democrats in a federal election in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany has brought an end to the grand coalition between CDU/CSU and SPD.
These are the mere facts, but what are the reasons and what does the future look like for the SPD in Germany?
The SPD lost in all age and professional categories. The biggest losses, however, occurred among the young voters (those voting for the first time), with 20%. This seems to be the most alarming signal. By coincidence, I followed a conversation between two students sitting in front of me in a train between Cologne and Aachen on Monday morning after the election. They were politically interested; their appearance was not at all conservative. From their conversation it became obvious that they were supporting the Pirates Party, which is rather common for students at the moment. Surprisingly for me, however, they also made the statement that under the present circumstances a coalition between CDU/CSU and Liberals would be the best solution. The SPD did not seem to be an alternative for them. When I was a student in the eighties, the social-democratic student organisations always had big majorities in the university parliaments.
Of course, the SPD was already in a difficult situation before the elections. The SPD was in government without having the bonus that the party of the chancellor normally has. The three small parties could celebrate record victories. This is not an unusual result of the grand coalitions. Voters who are not happy with the government decisions vote for the small parties in opposition. At the same time Chancellor Merkel seems to be the most moderate chancellor or candidate for chancellor that the CDU/CSU has ever presented. This has caused a transfer of votes from SPD to CDU/CSU in the “middle”.
On the other hand, the party “Die Linke” gained 3.2% more than in the elections in 2005. A lot of former SPD voters on the “left wing” have switched to “Die Linke”. Probably this is not only a result of the politics of the grand coalition, but also still of the social reforms (agenda 2010, affecting in particular unemployment benefits and health insurance) initiated under Chancellor Schröder. The fact that social cuts have been introduced by a government led by the Social-Democrats has had a long-term effect on voters who are traditionally on the side of the SPD. Even though the agenda 2010 seems to have had a positive effect on the economy in general, from which paradoxically Chancellor Merkel profits, many of the traditional SPD voters still realise more and more of the effects of the cuts in the social system introduced under the Schröder government. Schröder’s reforms have had positive effects on the country but a very negative effect on the party.
What is the perspective for the future of the SPD? Immediately after the elections, Chairman Müntefering said that the SPD will form a determined opposition in the Parliament. There is no other choice, I am afraid. Frank-Walter Steinmeier has been elected as Chairman of the SPD group in Parliament. Franz Müntefering will step down as Chairman of the party and Sigmar Gabriel has been designated as new Chairman. The elections will take place at the party conference in Dresden in November. Steinmeier as head of the chancellery under Schröder will always be seen as a representative of the reforms of the Schröder government. Gabriel, on the other hand, as he did not hold a Minster’s office under the Schröder government and became Minister for Environment under Merkel, is not very much seen as related to these reforms. The change in the chair of the party will also present a change in generation, from Franz Müntefering, age 79, to Sigmar Gabriel, age 50. Perhaps this is a first step to motivate the younger generation again for the SPD.
In my opinion it is a positive sign that the two most important positions in the party will be filled with persons representing two different approaches. As already said, Steinmeier is associated with the the Schröder reforms. Gabriel can be seen as a symbol for a new future and could, even though he does not belong to the left wing of the party himself, in connection with his designated Secretary General Andrea Nahles, perhaps attract voters who voted for the Green or “Die Linke” this time. For me, the major difficulty that the SPD has to overcome is to find a bridge between the past and the future. The party cannot fully dissociate itself from the reforms it has initiated in the government and which are painful for many of its voters but successful for the country. However, the party has to concentrate on the future now and should stop discussing the past. For sure, the new government will give the opportunity to demonstrate that traditional SPD voters were, despite all painful cuts in the social system, still much better off with a government with the participation of the SPD than with a CDU/Liberal government.
A paper presented by Steinmeier before the elections can already provide promising ideas for an attempt of how to reconcile the past with proposals for the future. The designated party leader, Sigmar Gabriel, is a charismatic personality with a good political instinct, who, I am sure, will be flexible for new approaches without breaking with the past. Whether this in the long run will also include a coalition between SPD, Greens and “Die Linke” remains an open question, which to a large extent will depend on the future attitude of “Die Linke”. This is not a homogenous party and it still needs to change a lot to be willing and able to take responsibility in a government at federal level. The discussions about building governments in some of the “Länder”, where elections were held on the same day as the federal elections, show that that there is a wide variety of different options in the political landscape in Germany nowadays and probably even more in future. At the moment, it looks like there might be coalitions between SPD and “Die Linke” in Brandenburg, SPD and CDU in Thüringen and CDU, Liberals and Greens in Saarland.
(The article reflects the personal views of the author.)