SPD, DON’T LET THE FRINGES GROW

GEORGE BAINES

APRIL 2018

On the 4th March 2018, the German Federal Republic took a reserved sigh of relief as the Eurozone front runner emerged from political insecurity with a rehash of the previous legislature’s government: GroKo V.3. The GroKo (Große Koalition), Grand Coalition, that has emerged has left a tidal wake of insecurity and political realignments amongst the population which has shattered the almost dully predictable facade of German politics. In light of the breakdown in the exploratory ‘Jamaica’ coalition talks – so named because of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) and Green Party (Grüne/Bündnis 90) party colours - the kingmaker in the Grand Coalition, the Social-democratic Party of Germany (SPD), brought itself to the negotiating table under the auspices of former European Parliament President, Martin Schulz. Following his election as head of the SPD and the subsequent Schulz-Effekt (Schulz effect), which saw a short-term turn around in national polls, the SPD’s almost immediate decline has persisted beyond its miserable performance in last year’s state and federal elections. The following article deals with the fundamental tectonic shifts in German party politics as a result of the SPD’s synonymity with Angela Merkel’s CDU / CSU alliance and the consequences for the future socio-political landscape of Germany at a historical juncture where populism’s determined course through European nations has throttled three of Germany’s eastern neighbouring states.

The SPD, originally founded on Marxist party values like those of fellow Western European labour parties, remains Germany’s oldest political party, predating Nazi Germany. During West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s oversight of the Wirtschaftswunder (Economic Miracle) of post-war West Germany from 1949-1963, the SPD had to redefine itself in a way to break away from its socialist roots in a country which had reconfigured its post-war psyche to fit a market-based social economy based on the ‘Third Way’ brand of ordoliberalism, while living under a democratic parliamentary political system. Meanwhile, the Federal Democratic Republic stood in vast contrast to the Democratic German Republic which survived under a communist state governed under a forced blend of the East German SPD and the communist KPD.

The West German SPD became a Volkspartei (catch-all party) in 1959 at the party’s Godesberger conference. It dismissed the thitherto primal tenet, Marxism, instead opting for a social-democratic leaning as well as extending its electoral base to all layers of society beyond the working classes. The party reaped the rewards on a handful of election days, delivering two consecutive SPD Chancellors, Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, from 1969 until 1982, then Gerhard Schröder from 1998 until 2005. These revivals at the poll booths were evidently linked to the party’s convergence towards the popular rebuilder of the pre-unified German state and its precedent-setting economic policies, the Christian Democratic Union. At the time of Schröder’s 1998 appointment as Chancellor, the SPD had delivered 20.18 million votes. As of the 2017 federal election, however, the social democrats sit on a measly 9.54 million.

The SPD’s perceived downfall can be attributed almost entirely to the nature of the SPD-CDU’s ideological assimilation, product of the CDU/CSU’s political voyeurism in leading coalition talks in the absence of a hospitable centre-right party with which to partner. The current German coalition government is the third such one in 12 years consisting of the greatest vote-wielding parties; the Christian Democratic Union (coupled with its inseparable sister party, the Christian Social Union of Bavaria) and the Social Democratic Party. Such exposure to one another has led to the CDU appropriating parts of the SPD’s political positioning on the ideological spectrum, and in doing so the nationwide CDU has seemingly shifted the Volkspartei’s furthest right-wing fringe to the centre ground. No clearer is this typified through Merkel’s open-door migrant and refugee policy, where her disregard towards the impacts waves of refugees and migrants would have on the social fabric of fellow EU members was as shocking as her party’s subsequent abandonment of centre-right politics. Inevitably, the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) was the only political party which distinguished itself from the Berlin consensus through its opportunistically befitting populist narrative.

So fatal a leftward shift is that the CDU has taken, that the CDU lost around a million votes to the AfD in September’s Bundestagswahl (federal election). Despite his recent comments over the Hartz IV unemployment benefit allocations that even Ian Duncan Smith would probably hesitate to mutter, it is predicted that Merkel’s party would lose a further 6.5% of its electorate to the FDP were Jens Spahn, newly appointed Minister for Health and potential Merkel successor, to run for the Chancellery. A ‘Weiter so’ should not remain official dogma of the historically socially conservative party if it is to keep the balance.

In an innocuous, yet inadvertently tragic comment which highlights the apparent amity of SPD-CDU policy sharing, SPD MdB (Member of the German Bundestag) Katrin Budde, ‘architect’ of the Magdeburger Modell, believes a minority government to be feasible at the federal level. Sharing her government-forming tips to the Süddeutsche Zeitung in December, the overseer of the SPD-led minority government of the state of Saxon-Anhalt from 1994-2002 suggests a hypothetical which I believe would have been opportune for the SPD in order to return to opposition. By letting the CDU/CSU govern lightly, it would have upheld the equilibrium in the Bundestag through a healthy dialectic progression and an internal reflection on a more original, nuanced manifesto of policies. However, the CDU was aware that were the SPD to show them its back Germans would be called upon once again to elect a government. Such a gamble most certainly would not have been fortune for Germany if current polls are to go by.

Similarly, the socio-politically fatal move to return to another GroKo may be due to meso-level political actors - that’s to say the functionaries and established political class within the Bundestagsfraktionen (parliamentary parties) who operate on an individual-rational basis of egotistical and financial aspirations to wriggle into a ministerial post at the cost of its parliamentary and nation-wide unity… Martin Schulz, was it?

Because in light of the SPD’s own JuSo (Young Socialists) publicly arguing for a withdrawal of the party from coalitions talks, and an ARD-DeutschlandTrend poll (1st March 2018) confirming a majority of Germans regard another Grand Coalition sceptically, credence is given to such cynicism.

Were it not for someone other than Andrea Nahles tipped to take over the leadership of the SPD at its Wiesbaden conference on the 22nd April, a defining third order shift of the type British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s has effectuated in opposition may have defined a clearer ideological boundary between the SPD and CDU prior to September’s federal election. Even still, Merkel’s party insidiously occupy swathes of centre-left ideological territory.

The very labelling of the SPD as a Volkspartei had consequently been questioned by February 2018, as it appeared to dip below the AfD in the polls. It is the dire necessity for a discernible identity for the SPD that causes the balance of Germany’s consensus-based politics to be jeopardised. Even if there are demonstrable SPD successes within this government’s Foreign, Finance and Labour ministries (to name but three of the six handed to it for this coalition), its activities should distinguish themselves markedly from those of the CDU/CSU to vindicate rhetorical discontinuity and divergence in its third Grand Coalition. This would not only serve to reconfigure its political identity, but to fend off a populist narrative of establishment parties not acting in the public interest.

With the AfD posing as official opposition in the Bundestag, the SPD already begins this legislative period at a tactical disadvantage. The AfD is now in a better position to gain legitimacy across the electorate as the largest party calling out the flaws in government with the third biggest time allocation given to speak in parliamentary sittings, even able to set the tone of certain debates. The AfD is now the recipient of 16 million euros to finance its Bundestag affairs, and an as of yet unspecified amount (believed to be in the millions) to fund AfD-associated stipends. The AfD can now assume extra-parliamentary positions in the German Development Bank and the international radio station, Deutsche Welle. Let us hope, therefore, that the current winds of change lead to a marked divergence in the SPD’s course in government as to stem Germany’s haemorrhaging disenfranchisement with its Volksparteien.