Return of the Social Democrats?

Ian Russell blogs about the SPD's campaign and argues that after a rough decade and a half, the once-storied titan of Europe’s center-left could be poised for a dramatic comeback after the election on September 26th.

After a rough decade and a half for Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), the once-storied titan of Europe’s center-left could be poised for a dramatic comeback after the election on September 26th.  The story of the SPD’s campaign this year holds lessons for progressives across Europe and around the world.

Years of buttressing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s grand coalition as a junior partner to her conservative Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CDU/CSU; often simply called the “Union”) left the SPD without a coherent identity or recognizable brand.  But with Merkel now leaving the stage, the SPD is on the march in what is a rarity for Germany: an election that doesn’t feature an incumbent Chancellor seeking re-election.  That means it’s all to play for with just over a week left before the vote – but the journey back to relevance has been a long one for the Social Democrats.

The Road to Irrelevance

The SPD’s latest turn in the political wilderness began with Merkel’s defeat of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s SPD-Green Party coalition government in 2005 and the inception of the first Merkel-led grand coalition of the CDU/CSU and the SPD.  Merkel went on to win the federal elections in 2009 (relegating the SPD to the opposition), 2013, and 2017 while the SPD share of the vote fell from the mid-30s to 20.5% in 2017.

Following the 2013 federal election, the Union and the SPD again formed a grand coalition and renewed it after the 2017 election following an aborted attempt by Merkel to form a “Jamaica coalition” (so called because it matched the colors of the Jamaican flag) with the Greens and the economically liberal Free Democrats.  The renewal of the grand coalition was not without controversy inside the SPD, and the time period during which the coalition negotiations took place coincided with a further drop in the SPD’s poll numbers.

There was even further to fall.  By the end of 2018, polling showed the SPD hovering around 15% - behind the Green Party and even the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in some polls, and the decline continued into 2019. 

As delegates gathered for the Parteitag (party conference) in December of 2019 to elect its new leadership and conduct party business, the POLITICO polling average showed the SPD at 13%, behind the CDU/CSU at 27%, the Greens at 21%, and the AfD at 14%. The situation was bleak. 

An observer at the conference, I watched a party in danger of ripping itself apart.  In the leadership race, the ticket led by Olaf Scholz, Vice Chancellor and Finance Minister in the coalition government, had been defeated by the relatively low-profile ticket of Saskia Esken, a member of the Bundestag, and Norbert Walter-Borjans, the former finance minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, with the support of the party’s left flank and youth movement.  Scholz was well-respected but viewed as a moderate and part of the establishment.  Some delegates were even advocating crashing the SPD out of the grand coalition altogether.  Merkel’s years-long strategy of asymmetrical demobilization, disarming the SPD by coopting some of its positions while depriving it of most substantive policy victories in the eyes of German voters, had paid off.  Germany’s oldest political party simply wasn’t relevant.

Making Their Own Luck

Fast forward nineteen months.  In late July 2021, the SPD began a small but determined march upwards in the polling average.  They passed the Greens in mid-August and the CDU/CSU by the end of the month.  Now, prognosticators and data analysts like those at The Economist give the SPD a three in four chance of having the most seats in the Bundestag and recapturing the Chancellery after a decade and a half in exile. 

So what happened?  Cardinal Mazarin, chief minister of France in the 17th century, noted (in a quote that is often misattributed to Napoleon) that one must not ask of a general “Is he skillful?” but rather “Is he lucky?”.  In the 2021 campaign so far, the SPD has been both – and it’s finally paying off.

The new leadership and their vanquished rivals rowed in together after the 2019 Parteitag and worked to unite the party’s factions.  This culminated in the pragmatic decision announced by the party leadership on August 10, 2020, to nominate Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz as the SPD’s candidate for chancellor – something that would have been unthinkable to some after his defeat in the party’s leadership race nine months before. 

As finance minister, Scholz exuded calm competence as he led the effort to shepherd Germany’s economy – the largest in Europe – through the COVID-19 pandemic.  Before his time in the federal government, he served as the mayor of Hamburg, Germany’s second city, where he earned a reputation for practicality and proficiency.  While progressive, he didn’t seek to score points – he focused on delivering.

Scholz’s selection as the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, the first of any German party for the 2021 elections, was initially greeted with a shrug by the German electorate – if they noticed at all.  The SPD’s numbers didn’t move.  Undeterred, the Scholz and the SPD pressed on.

By the spring of 2021, the nation’s attention had turned to Annalena Baerbock, the 40-year-old chancellor candidate of the Green Party.  The excitement around her selection briefly rocketed the Greens to first place in the polling average in early May.  The CDU/CSU’s numbers were buffeted by several scandals and a prolonged party leadership race that resulted in the selection of Armin Laschet, the state-premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, as leader and chancellor candidate.

The Baerbock surge ran its course by July after a series of missteps and plagiarism allegations showed that the Greens simply weren’t ready for prime time.  They still led the SPD – which hadn’t moved in the polling average – but the CDU/CSU retook the lead.  Then, Laschet was caught on video laughing during a speech by the German president on a visit to the flood-stricken town of Erftstadt, in a region where almost 200 people had been killed in catastrophic floods.  His poll numbers began a downward slide in the aftermath of the gaffe; an INSA poll published on July 25 showed that in a hypothetical direct vote for chancellor, Olaf Scholz received more support from voters than Laschet by a margin of 21%-15%.  It would prove to be a major turning point.

Respect and Competence

Scholz steered clear of his opponents’ cycles of boom and bust while laying the groundwork to take advantage of the new volatility in the polls.  For months, he had been pushing his message of respect for working people and competence in dealing with the challenges Germany will face in the future – while projecting the reassuring air of a capable technocrat.  All he needed was for voters to give him a hearing. 

The SPD high command had been saying for months that Scholz could finish strong once voters started paying attention to him.  Scholz’s advisers believed there was a pool of voters who had been drawn to Merkel in past campaigns because of her perceived managerial skills and competency but didn’t necessarily have a lasting connection to her party.  Their votes might now be in play for the candidate who best emulated those traits.  One of Scholz’s top strategists referred to them in a conversation with me as “Merkel SPD voters,” a play on the “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s. 

Further, their theory of the case was that the next chancellor could come from the party that wins around 25% of the vote - which would obviously still require the SPD to break out of the mid-teens, where it had languished since 2019, and pass the 20.5% share of the vote it received in 2017 (in an election that had been roundly considered a disaster).  But given the right circumstances, this could be doable.

This theory began to look plausible as July turned into August and the SPD made marginal gains in the polling average off the back of the CDU/CSU and Greens.  As Scholz formally launched the SPD’s electoral campaign in the industrial town of Bochum on August 14, the SPD overtook the Greens for second place, 20%-18%.  This was a significant milestone, because it now opened up the possibility of an SPD-led coalition government that would not include the CDU/CSU, even if the latter finished first.  SPD campaign placards began including the slogan “Scholz packt das an,” meaning “Scholz tackles that.”  Whatever the important issue – rent, wages, climate change – Scholz will tackle it.

Voters were responding to Scholz and his message.  Polls that tested potential chancellor preferences consistently showed a huge lead for Scholz and often Laschet in a distant third place.  The gaffe-prone Laschet seemed unable to catch a break, while Scholz demonstrated the message discipline and predictable performances that once led a newspaper to dub him “Scholzomat” (his name combined with “automat,” the German word for “machine”).  On August 23, the SPD pulled even with the CDU/CSU on 23%, and then began to pull away

The Scholzomat rolled on, winning all three televised debates according to viewer polls and lifting the SPD vote to around 26% as the CDU/CSU fell to 21% - the worst polling in their entire existence.  After dramatic movement in August, the race seems to have stabilized in September.  Meanwhile, Germans are voting by mail in record numbers, reducing opportunities to disrupt the trajectory of the race (some projections are that as much as half of the overall votes cast will come through the mail).  But the narrow SPD lead by no means ensures victory on Election Day nor that they will form the next government.  The race is still a tossup.

Coalition Math

Since the chancellorship of Konrad Adenauer, either the CDU/CSU or the SPD has formed successive governments with the support of one smaller party like the Greens or the Free Democrats.  Based on the polling, that era appears to be over.  No two parties currently have enough support combined to take a majority in the Bundestag, so three parties will likely need to agree to form a coalition government.  This could change if one party opens up a wide lead or minor parties fail to cross the five percent threshold to win seats in the Bundestag.

Another government featuring the current grand coalition partners seems highly unlikely because the party conferences must authorize the agreement.  Much of the speculation has focused on either a “Jamaica” coalition of the CDU/CSU, Greens, and Free Democrats or a “traffic light” coalition of the SPD, Greens, and Free Democrats.  Resurrecting an old attack against the SPD from the Cold War, Laschet and Merkel have raised the specter that Scholz would form a red-red-green coalition with the Greens and the Left party.  Scholz has talked up the potential that an SPD-led government that includes the Greens could have to tackle important issues, while emphasizing the differences he has with some of the Left party’s platform, especially regarding foreign policy.

A big unknown is how much German voters care about coalition options as they make up their minds.  A ZDF poll from September 10 indicated that while all coalition options tested were unpopular, voters are less opposed to an SPD-Green-Free Democrats coalition than other options, with 33% supporting and 41% opposing.  Only 29% support a CDU/CSU-Green-Free Democrats coalition.

In the final stretch, will Scholz be able to maintain the SPD’s poll lead over his rivals?  Does Laschet have a plan to disrupt the race and regain momentum?  While no longer seen as a potential chancellor, Baerbock will likely be instrumental in forming the next government – will she tip her hand as to what her party will push for in coalition negotiations?  The race is wide open and worth following for anyone interested in Europe’s future, the trans-Atlantic relationship, or progressive politics.

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