Difficult fateful year 2021: the hybrid SPD is facing a new tremor

The first year of the new chairman is over and the SPD is still far behind in surveys. The good mood among the Social Democrats is astonishing. The coming super election year offers more risks than opportunities.

At the beginning of December the time had come again: The SPD had one of its many rendezvous with its own history. The party chairman Norbert Walter-Borjans laid a wreath at the ghetto memorial in Warsaw, where German social democracy experienced one of its noblest moments 50 years ago: the kneeling of the German Chancellor and SPD chairman Willy Brandt to the victims of Nazi Germany. The anniversary date did not attract as much attention due to the corona situation. You have to say: fortunately for the SPD. Who in this party can give a happy picture next to historical big names like Brandt? The constant memory of past greatness is also a burden. This is especially true for the SPD chairmen Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken, who are still largely unknown to many Germans.

The successors of the two short-term chairmen Martin Schulz and Andrea Nahles have now been in office for one year. And they are – nothing contrary can be read anywhere – quite satisfied with themselves. After years of bitter trench warfare and the constantly tense atmosphere in the Willy Brandt House, it is above all the inner-party peace that the chairmen and their general secretary Lars Klingbeil can record as the greatest success. Conflicts between party, parliamentary group and government ministers have not been carried out publicly for months. Criticism of the party executive from within its own ranks is rare.

This is somewhat surprising given the consistently weak poll numbers. Especially since Esken and Walter-Borjans set a benchmark themselves: They like to talk about sending the Union to the opposition bench in the upcoming federal election and wanting to lead a government themselves. Given that the CDU and CSU are 20 percentage points behind in the polls, one can be amazed at such targets. But perhaps Brandt's heirs do not dare to give their comrades a more realistic picture of the size of their party – at the price of barely fulfilling expectations.

What has succeeded

Whereby it is precisely this constant fluff that takes away the view of many successes that are not historical, but quite decent. The current top SPD, for example, rightly claims to integrate the base better than their predecessors. Be it through regular communication between the chairpersons and the SPD district associations or through participatory formats, such as the debate camp initiated by Klingbeil in mid-December. Keeping the still high number of party members in a drastically changing society is quite a task.

In the government, too, a lot is going on in the spirit of the SPD: Esken and Walter-Borjans claim that they exerted pressure on the CDU through the coalition committee during the Thuringian government crisis so that the CDU would ensure democratic order in Erfurt. The fight against the AfD, even in the recent crisis in Saxony-Anhalt, strengthens the party's historical self-image as a parliamentary bulwark against fascism.

During the Corona crisis, the SPD was able to assert itself in both the Federal Government and the Bundestag with core social democratic issues: including the extension and increase of short-time work benefits, the Corona child bonus and more money for the daycare expansion, the design of the Corona economic stimulus package , the clear restriction of contract and agency work in the meat industry. The SPD also prevailed with the basic pension, with the abolition of the soli contribution for low and middle incomes and it will probably get a supply chain law in the end.

Real SPD successes are Merkel's successes

Some of it is so well received by the population that Chancellor Angela Merkel sold it as a Groko success in her latest government statement, such as the extended short-time work allowance. It is often like that: that people do not even notice who has brought them something good in the grand coalition. The SPD is simply the small coalition partner in Merkel's shadow. But it is also the coalition party that is most reluctant to stand by the federal government in public. If it were different, Groko's opponents Esken and Walter-Borjans would not have been elected chairmen.

The SPD members did not trust their Federal Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who was elected Chancellor candidate last summer, to renew the SPD. Scholz was too groko for them. Now the SPD leaders at least trust him to sell the SPD successes in the government and at the same time to convey to the people that the party has renewed, modernized itself and positioned itself politically further to the left parallel to the government. The Vice-Chancellor should stand for the fact that there is a successfully ruling SPD and behind it an even better shadow SPD waiting. The SPD is a hybrid that wants to be loved for both sides. You can't accuse Scholz of ducking away from big tasks.

State elections as a test

And Esken and Walter-Borjans cannot be accused of stubbornness: it was pragmatic to raise the only SPD politician who pulls in the polls to some extent. In the collaboration between Scholz and the party board members mediated by Klingbeil, a solid foundation for collaboration seems to have emerged. All three praise the mutual trust everywhere. Since the summer, the chairmen have been letting their candidate for chancellor take the limelight without complaint. Chancellor candidate Martin Schulz and party chairman Sigmar Gabriel had a very different experience.

The litmus test for the trio comes with the state elections in spring: In Rhineland-Palatinate, SPD Prime Minister Malu Dreyer must fear for her position. In Baden-Wuerttemberg, Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt, the SPD is so lagging behind that even small increases can hardly gain momentum for autumn. Then, parallel to the federal election, Manuela Schwesig in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Franziska Giffey in Berlin are fighting for government office.

It will also be interesting to see how the Bundestag parliamentary group reacts to persistent failure: There are tensions in the parliamentary group, about personal details as well as about the left-wing foreign and security policy of parliamentary group leader Rolf Mützenich. The group will look different after autumn. It was now noticeably smaller, and at the instigation of Klingbeil and the previous Juso chairman Kevin Kühnert, it was also significantly younger. Several Jusos are running for members of the Bundestag who are no longer running, or at least try to do so.

Was it really just up to Merkel?

The Klingbeil responsible for the election campaign is still working on his campaign, which will probably be tailored entirely to Scholz. After all, neither Esken and Walter-Borjans nor the rest of the cabinet members get caught in public. In the case of the Federal Social Minister Hubertus Heil, who is really hard-working with his huge budget and – compared to Economics Minister Peter Altmaier, for example – efficiently working, this is almost tragic.

In the midst of the Corona crisis, no one can predict whether the SPD's topics will pull in the summer. The currently most likely alliance of the Union and the Greens could arouse the concern among some voters that a business-friendly restructuring of the economic system away from CO2 emissions would be at the expense of the welfare state. On the other hand, it is not evident that the country is longing for an SPD-led three-way alliance with the Greens and the Left, as Esken and Walter-Borjans would like. You yourself speak shyly of a "progressive government alliance" – just the wording of the common worker for whose love the party vies. The fact is: the SPD currently has no realistic power perspective beyond the grand coalition.

If one asks the SPD how the party nevertheless achieved its goal of well over 20 percent in the federal election, the answer is sobering. All respondents are unanimous that people will decide in favor of Scholz as soon as they realize that Merkel is no longer up for election, but a supposedly unattractive candidate for the Union. This bet is based on an assumption widespread in the SPD: namely, that people appreciate the work of the SPD, but that Merkel's popularity outweighs affection for the SPD. But if the eternal Chancellor is gone and there are still no more people voting for the SPD: It would be a rude awakening.