First published in The Australian Jewish Times
Elections to the German Bundestag always have a global dimension, as they will help determine the future direction of foreign policy. The SPD could play an extremely important role in this. In 2017, the Social Democrats were at their lowest point in the history of the Federal Republic, with 20.5% in the Bundestag elections. Now it looks as if they will be the strongest party on 26 September 2021.
The Social Democrats are clearly committed to Israel and take a clear position against any form of anti-Semitism, but there are also very critical voices, especially on the left wing and in the youth organisation Jusos (Young Socialists), which for example regards the Fatah youth as a sister organisation. These could become louder if there is a coalition with the Greens or the Left Party.
Now the power option for the Social Democrats seems to be within reach again. Without doubt an astonishing turn of events, but why is that? Does it strike a chord with the times? Does it have the right strategy and what kind of result can be expected?
Who votes for the SPD?
The SPD is one of Germany’s oldest parties and for many years had a loyal core electorate for whom only social democracy existed. This base broke with Agenda 2010 at the latest, and numerous voters from originally social democratic milieus turned their backs on the party.
Nevertheless, the SPD still has loyal supporters who will always put their cross in the desired place, regardless of any content. In part, the image of the Social Democrats is still shaped by the past and often has little to do with the real appearance or content in 2021. More than 15%, however, is no longer feasible with these loyalists. A proportion that is constantly shrinking, partly for biological reasons.
Classical blue-collar workers no longer play a major role, since only 15% of the electorate still belong to this classical group – here the surveys occasionally fluctuate by a few percentage points – while a good 70% are counted as white-collar workers. Even civil servants and the self-employed play a more important role – admittedly on a cumulative basis – than blue-collar workers. The targeted electorate of the SPD has therefore long since ceased to be the classical working people. They make up only a small part of the electorate, which, due to the foreseeable effects of the digitalisation process, will steadily shrink. For this reason, the party has long been targeting a new group: The so-called „New Middle“, which is supposed to extend across several milieus and unite people with a wide variety of opinions, attitudes towards life or behavioural patterns. Indeed, today almost 60% of SPD voters are also found in modern, individualised or reoriented lifestyles.
What is the SPD’s election campaign strategy?
The SPD’s election strategy can be summed up in one simple word: Chancellor election campaign. The entire campaign is tailored to Olaf Scholz, who is the focus of all efforts and to whom everything is directed. He is supposed to personify the party, which primarily focuses on the issue of respect. Olaf Scholz is the party.
On the surface, the approach was highly successful, with the Social Democrats rising in voter favour from around 18% (July 2021) to around 25%. (September 2021). They went from a distant third to the strongest party and have a realistic prospect of leading the government. Is Olaf Scholz therefore the crisis manager par excellence who can bring the SPD out of the valley of tears and make it climb to the highest heights?
No, it isn’t. Social democracy has been in a serious identity crisis for many years, because what social democratic politics should look like in the present day seems to many voters, but also to party strategists, either too unclear to identify precisely or so clear that it seems much too far removed from the original SPD. But that is only half the truth, because there is in fact an erosion of social milieus, i.e. a fragmentation of society into individual realities of life that are increasingly difficult to play to and which also fight milieu battles among themselves. Social democracy has been struggling with these changes for a long time, temporarily appearing like a relic of the 20th century in its actions and therefore ending up with the worst result in the history of the Federal Republic in 2017.
The veiled identity crisis of the social democrats
Said identity crisis is also not yet over and within the party there is still a constant struggle for the right course in the 21st century. Internally, after the great failure of the conservatives in 2017, Martin Schulz belongs to the Seeheim circle, i.e. the right wing, the momentum of the party left seemed to have come, because still in 2019 Vice-Chancellor Scholz, together with Klara Geywitz, lost the race for the party chair against the duo Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans.
As a consolation, Olaf Scholz received the chancellor candidacy, which for a long time was considered unpromising by the left wing and therefore had no priority. Since there was only limited belief in electoral success, there was an agreement on the personalisation and the assurance of restraint with what are, in other words, brash ideas from the ranks of the party’s left. This is also the reason for the conspicuous reticence of certain parts of the social democratic structure and the constant emphasis on unity. The finance minister, as the favourite of the conservative wing, should dispose of himself and his supporters, to put it somewhat casually, and thus clear the way for a further restructuring of the party.
But it didn’t come to that, because it was mainly the weaknesses and mistakes of the CDU/CSU and the Greens that made the solid, staid chancellor’s campaign, which, like so many in the 2021 federal election, relied on a smoothed-out watering-down strategy with no rough edges, suddenly successful. Or to put it more simply: The chugging Scholz boat slowly approached the finish line first, because the competition sank itself, or at least leaked.
The reason is not strategy, but rather it is the mistakes of rivals that make a social democratic chancellor possible. The wrong candidates, weak screening, personal mishaps, sometimes inappropriate campaign strategies that were changed too late, and the way is clear for what the New York Times calls „the most boring German,“ who also has the good fortune that his own damage options like Wirecard or CumEX are difficult to put into catchy slogans.
The big question now is what will happen when the boat arrives. The party left prefers a red-red-green coalition, which is why there is no distancing from this possibility, and it is probably powerful enough to push through thematic points, if necessary even against Scholz, the favourite of the Seeheimer Kreis, but also of Netzwerk Berlin, or Secretary-General Lars Klingbeil. An election victory would in turn strengthen other forces and put a major damper on the ambitions of some party members.
The internal struggle for the right course, but also simply for power, will therefore continue. Whether in the end the new centre will be kept in view and whether the challenges of the age of collective individualism, such as behavioral capitalism, constant milieu struggles or the homo stimulus will be met, remains an open question. The development of the social democrats will therefore have to be watched with interest.
Forecast for the Bundestag election
The SPD could indeed emerge from the Bundestag election campaign as the strongest party. However, it would owe this not to its own strength but rather to the weakness of the political competition. 22% to 27% are quite possible. Much will depend on whether the CDU/CSU can successfully stage the „spectre“ of a red-red-green coalition in the media in the last few days and thus mobilise voters. If this happens, the party could lose a few more percentage points in the last few metres. A clear commitment against this alliance before the election, on the other hand, would mean victory, but is not conceivable due to the balance of power within the SPD.