Opinion: What on earth is happening to the SPD?

Opinion: What on earth is happening to the SPD?

24th June 2008, Comments 0 comments

Could the party of Gerhard Schroeder and Willy Brandt be on its last legs? Our guest editor Dominic Hinde takes a look.

It can trace its roots back to 1863 and is one of Europe's oldest political parties, the home of heavyweight figures such as Willy Brandt. It provided significant opposition to the Nazis and draws approval from intellectual heavyweights such as Guenter Grass, yet an illustrious history seems no guarantee of an illustrious future if the current situation is anything to go by. Throughout Germany there is a general consensus that the SPD is in serious trouble.

Ironically enough, it is in left wing eastern Germany that the SPD is really struggling. The East is red but a bit too red for the Social Democrats. Where socialist voters exist, the SPD is haemoraging what support it had to the resurgent The Left party and the Greens. In many areas, it struggles to even field candidates, let alone win an election and its membership remains low, being described by political commentator Bernhard Honnigfort as “too small to live and too big to die.” The SPD in the East lives in perpetual limbo, lacking the working class base that underpins its success in the western part of the country. The majority of SPD members in the East work in professions such as law, medicine and engineering, prompting the analysis of the eastern SPD as 'a head without a body'.

Neither can the SPD effectively form coalitions with its more successful contemporaries. Werner Patzelt, a professor of political science at Dresden’s Technical University, says that the SPD in the East wishes to be all things to everyone but is ultimately unattractive for voters and coalition partners alike, thanks in part to its commitment to reform under the Agenda 2010 banner, including welfare reform and a more liberal attitude to economics.

“Again the SPD, since Agenda 2010, has been ground down between the CDU and the The Left,” he said. “One side sees the SPD as being too close to anti-establishment parties, while the other sees Agenda 2010 as a betrayal of principals.”

The unification of a number of disparate groups under the mantle of The Left in 2007 has given the far left party a presence in former West Germany as well, attracting disaffected SPD members. Ironically The Left headquarters are on Karl Leibknecht Strasse in Berlin's eastern part. Leibknecht himself left the SPD to become one of Germany's foremost radical socialists before World War I. The Left rose from the ashes of the former East Germany's ruling Socialist Unity Party and as such, automatically attracts the support of some of the old party faithful, as well as benefiting from the 'Ostalgia' for the days of zero unemployment and affordable prices under Communist rule.

Whilst East Germany suffers from low support, the party's western part seems to suffer from a complete lack of leadership if its critics are to be believed. Much maligned SPD leader Kurt Beck, owner of a fine mullet, struggles to do anything with the SPD and even members of his own party have admitted to favouring Angela Merkel as chancellor. Beck's detractors say that he lacks eloquence and vision as well as understanding when it comes to the big issues. Germans are more likely to recognise Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier than Beck, and Steinmeier is increasingly being encouraged to become the SPD candidate for chancellor, though almost by default.

The Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper, which has a long standing connection to the SPD, has been waxing lyrical about the downfall of the party. Editorials appear on an almost daily basis opining on which direction the SPD should take in order to save itself and almost everyone concerned is adamant that the SPD with Beck in charge will not even defend its current share of the vote, let alone win next year's election.

A recent survey published in the Berlin Tagesspiegel newspaper revealed that around a third of the SPD's grass roots membership would consider leaving given the political turbulence within the organisation. There are a number of divisive issues splitting the party, including whether or not to enter into an electoral alliance with The Left and the decision of the SPD to promote its own candidate Gesine Schwan in the forthcoming presidential election against the popular incumbent Horst Koehler has split members almost exactly down the middle.

SPD members started to worry a few years ago when they lost a regional election in their North Rhine-Westphalia stronghold, followed by the more recent election of a conservative-green coalition nominally red Hamburg. The SPD has always struggled in Bavaria in the same fashion as the conservative party in Scotland or the Republicans in New England but now its own heartland is being eaten away and it doesn't know where to turn.

The only certainty about the SPD in its current state is its uncertainty. For the SPD to lose its place as one of the two most important political forces in Germany is not unthinkable. Still, if something isn't done before the 2009 elections and politics continues to become polarised, it appears the party will be left a ghost of its former self.

-- Dominic Hinde

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