Hard road back to power for Germany’s Social Democrats

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrive for the weekly cabinet meeting in Berlin, Germany August 12, 2020. Tobias Schwarz/Pool via REUTERS
Editor's note:

Germany’s Social Democrats have enhanced their chances to lead the next German government by nominating Finance Minister Olaf Scholz as their chancellor candidate, while Germany’s politics have not been so open in a long time, Constanze Stelzenmüller argues. This post originally appeared in the Financial Times.

Last week, Germany’s Social Democrats surprised the nation — and possibly themselves — by nominating finance minister Olaf Scholz as their candidate for chancellor, and thereby kicking off next year’s election campaign.

With Angela Merkel in her 15th year as chancellor, guiding Germany’s six-month spell in the EU’s rotating presidency and enjoying 70 percent approval for her calm and effective pandemic management, one might almost forget that her country is not a monarchy. But Merkel has ruled out running for a fifth term. Inexorably, the Age of Angela is drawing to a close.

Germany thus faces its most consequential vote in a decade and a half in autumn 2021. (The election must take place between August 25 and October 24.) It was no mean feat for the Social Democrats, well known for vicious infighting and toppling their own leaders, to pull together and become the first party to nominate its candidate. But does Scholz stand a chance — with his party, and with the nation?

Until recently, conventional wisdom had it that the first post-Merkel government would be a coalition of her Christian Democrats and the Greens. If the vote were held today, opinion polls suggest the two parties would win an easy absolute majority. They would not even need the liberal Free Democrats, whose walkout from coalition negotiations in 2017 forced Merkel into a third “grand coalition” with the SPD.

Yet the CDU has so far failed to find a successor to Merkel. Defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, her heir-designate, resigned in February as party leader after a series of missteps. Of the current competitors — Armin Laschet, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia; businessman Friedrich Merz; and Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee — none has proved compelling.

Markus Söder, Bavaria’s popular state premier, protests that he does not want to run for the chancellorship. With several key state elections early in the year, party leaders are eyeing a deferral of the choice until spring. Such vacillation suggests the CDU’s commanding lead in the polls is, above all, a Merkel bonus.

The Greens were briefly neck and neck with the CDU last year, prompting speculation that the party would have to field its first ever candidate for chancellor. But the gloss of their two youngish leaders, Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, has dimmed. The SPD hopes to exploit these vulnerabilities. Still, polling at a mere 15 percent, its path to power requires a heroic squaring of circles. Forming a “red-red-green” coalition with the radical leftist Die Linke and the Greens would get them barely 40 percent. So it must also lure centrist voters from other parties.

This purpose is served by picking Scholz over fierce objections and tweets of #NOlaf from parts of the SPD’s hard left. The 62-year-old is the closest thing in German politics to a male Merkel: bone-dry and — as finance minister, two-time Hamburg mayor and former labor minister — highly experienced.

Scholz is nothing if not flexible. A renegade from the left fringe, he implemented former chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s “Agenda 2010” labour market reforms and became an advocate of balanced budgets. Now he is the architect of Germany’s head-spinning endorsement of a €750bn EU recovery package. A recognition of Germany’s responsibilities for Europe, it is in keeping with a public mood that wants more social solidarity and a stronger state.

But the SPD’s left wing remains a powerful force. Kevin Kühnert, 31, the influential leader of the party’s radical youth organisation, is running for the legislature. Rolf Mützenich, chairman of the SPD’s parliamentary group, has enforced a pacifist, anti-NATO line. The party group’s three most senior security policy experts have all resigned — a dowry for Die Linke.

The successor to the former East German Communist party, Die Linke responded to Scholz’s candidacy by declaring its readiness to assume a role in government. Die Linke’s ideological intransigence is unpalatable to many Social Democrats. But the party includes pragmatists such as Gregor Gysi, 72, its foreign policy spokesman.

The Greens display a studied indifference to all this that betrays an awkward dilemma. They owe their surge to a progressive centrism designed for cross-over appeal to conservatives. But much of their base remains very left wing. On election night, the Greens might end up with more votes than the SPD. If they did well enough, Germany might be looking at a “green-red-red” coalition.

Germany’s politics have not been so open in a long time. For its neighbors, this is unlikely to be reassuring.