Post World War II Germany has had 19 federal elections which have resulted in governments led by either center-right CDU/CSU or center-left SPD. Led by Gerhard Schroeder, SPD got its biggest mandate ever (41%) that ended the Kohl era in 1998 and returned to power after sitting in the opposition for four terms. Angela Merkel of CDU/CSU has been in the chancellery for the last four terms. SPD wants to occupy that seat through its Chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz, who is the current Vice-Chancellor as well Finance Minister.
But hoping for a repeat of 1998 appears to be wishful thinking for the socialists. Despite high personal approval ratings in opinion polls for Scholz, his party is at all-time low polling between 14-16% in the same opinion polls. The top spot appears very much out of reach and in fact SPD has been pushed to the third position behind CDU/CSU and the Greens. Any more erosion or a late surge by FDP might even relegate them to a fourth position. These are definitely not the kind of numbers that a party hoping to wrest power would be wanting to see.
If battling the present wasn’t enough, Scholz doesn’t have history on his side either. Unlike US politics, where Vice Presidentship mostly means one foot inside the door, only two Vice-Chancellors in Germany have gone on to occupy the top post. Long-time apprentice Helmut Schmidt was finally elevated as successor to Konrad Adenauer. It was only Willy Brandt who as Vice-Chancellor won an election against the conservatives in 1972.
There are multiple reasons why it is highly improbable for Scholz to repeat what Brandt did. SPD has been in a consistent decline since 2002. They have been losing their voters, to use a cliché, left right, and center. Merkel has craftily nudged CDU/CSU towards the center shrinking the available space which has been gobbled up by Greens. In 3 of her 4 terms, she was leading a grand coalition of CDU/CSU and SPD which made it difficult for SPD to move further left causing disillusionment amongst its traditional voters. Germany has witnessed global factors like massive immigration and moving gradually from a welfare state to a market state. This has fueled a strong sense of betrayal by the working class, its core vote bank, which has moved to the other end of the spectrum evident in the rise of AfD.
All is not gloom and doom for Scholz though. He enjoys tremendous personal goodwill and respect, hard-earned through three decades in public life. He has acquitted himself very well in his different roles in the party as well as the government. The 61-year-old is as veteran as they come – having cut his teeth in his hometown Hamburg – where he has been Senator for Interior and later became its first Mayor. He entered the Bundestag first in 1998, was minister of Labor and Social Affairs in Merkel’s first cabinet, and also lead SPD first in Hamburg and then at a national level. But it is his handling of the economic aspect of the pandemic as Finance Minister that has endeared him to the public. His massive rescue packages cushioned the impact and Germany withstood the crisis better than other European nations.
Unlike usual opposition candidates, Scholz’s challenge is, he cannot get away by blaming or accusing the government as he was the No 2 in the cabinet. One can’t run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. Precisely the reason why the SPD candidate in 2017 Martin Schulz failed so abjectly and SPD ended up with only 20% of votes. SPD rank and file was against another grand coalition with CDU/CSU. It was an opportunity for SPD to go back to the opposition, go back to basics, and reverse the decline. With that opportunity lost the SPD has lost another 5% votes by 2021 and is on the verge of becoming a fringe party in Germany.
The churn within SPD has caused three leadership changes since the last elections in the last four years. The 2017 fiasco meant Martin Schulz was booted out and was replaced by Andrea Nahles. The abysmal performance of SPD in the 2019 European elections led to her resignation and triggered another party leadership election. SPD came up with a joint leadership in the form of Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans. Scholz lost out in this election as he is not perceived to be left-leaning enough within SPD. Interestingly because he is not too left-leaning, he was nominated as chancellor candidate ahead of the party leaders.
Therein lies the root cause of SPDs decline. It is unable to zero on the right configuration for the future. It can’t be seen as leaning too much towards the left or inching too close to the center. It is an existential crisis that socialist parties across west Europe are facing which has weakened them at best or wiped them out at worst. Scholz has come up with an agenda that has increased the minimum wage to EUR 12 as its centerpiece. While this may gain some uplift to the party but it may not be enough to wither the onslaught. Scholz desperately needs a narrative rather than an agenda – and that narrative to capture the imagination of the voters is missing. Nicknamed Scholzomat (bazooka), he will go all guns blazing in the elections but is most likely to fall silent once the last bullet is fired in September.
Zeyaur Rahman holds a Masters’ degree from JNU. Along with his day job, he blogs on socio-political affairs and curates subaltern historical content. He can be reached on Twitter: @rahman_zeyaur)
This is the second part of a series profiling the major contenders for German chancellorship. The first part can be accessed here.