New Leadership for Germany’s SPD

Seventeen candidates wanted to become the new leadership of Germany’s Social Democrats. In twenty-three regional conferences across all 16 German states, they introduced themselves to party members and the public in an attempt to stand out as the perfect fit for the former working-class party, that is fighting survival at this stage.

After the, what German media dubbed a controversial casting tour, concluded, over 425,000 SPD members were eligible to vote. On Saturday, it came down to the last two remaining teams. Vice-Chancellor and Minister of Finance Scholz and his co-candidate Klara Geywitz were expected to win, according to the polls. To everyone’s surprise, it was the other remaining duo that succeeded.

Congratulations to Walter Borjans, former Finance Minister of North Rhine-Westphalian and Saskia Esken, Member of Parliament. For those who now feel ignorant for not having heard their names rest assured that neither had most Germans. With just under 53 percent both prevailed. Now Germany’s former proud major party is led by two individuals, who hardly ever appeared in federal politics before and who have been labeled inexperienced and low-profile – in the more moderate assessments of Germany’s media.

The latter did not stop voters to put their faith in Borjans and Esken. And it illustrates their states of mind: the profile is secondary, experience tertiary. Relevant, so it appears, is only the stance on the grand coalition. As an exit, so the legend goes, would reanimate the patient SPD.

The notion that the grand coalition needed to be revisited was a major part of Borjans’ and Esken’s program. Scholz and Geywitz were in favor of continuing to work with the CDU/CSU. The voters disagreed. And despite several high-profile MPs siding openly with Scholz and Geywitz, both received just under 45 percent.

After the latest crushing state election defeats, where the former major party even failed to score double digits at times change was desperately needed. The youth wing within the party, the “JUSOS” and their chair Kevin Kühnert have long been opponents of the grand coalition and seek a hard turn to the left. Naturally, the group endorsed Borjans and Eskens.

Borjans’ and Esken’s manifesto reveals where the journey is supposed to go. Inter alia, the team seeks to turn away from the balanced federal budget, one of Merkel’s signature policies, increase the minimum wage to €12 per hour, force the implantation of stricter climate policies and renegotiate the coalition agreement. The issue? Particularly the latter is pretty much seen as impossible with the CDU, as already stated by chair Kramp-Karrenbauer. Nonetheless, the pressure on Borjans and Eskens in on and the base wants to see results, if necessary, a long-awaited goodbye to the grand coalition.

The result marks a paradigm shift, that was more than necessary. For the SPD to become successful again, it needs to reinvent itself first. Ten years as Merkel’s junior partner and a CDU that, under Merkel, has moved further and further to the middle, have left little room for the SPD to score with an own identity.

A sharp turn to the left and away from the CDU’s moderate stances should thus work in theory. However, it is hard to believe that the two new chairs possess the pedigree to facilitate the party’s resurrection. Furthermore, the division within the party has widened. Young uber progressives attempt to replace the pragmatist, who, for obvious reasons, have no interest in a new general election. The divide and the lack of faith in future leadership are also illustrated by the voter turnout for the candidates. Only 54.9% of the 425,000 members submitted a vote, despite their party being desperate for a change of course.

Most importantly, if Borjans and Eskens were true to opt-out of the grand coalition and force a new general election, can both be trusted in running a campaign of this magnitude? And where would it leave the party that currently polls between 13 and 15 percent?

It has been almost two decades of decrease popularity and inadequate party chairs. This time, it was supposed to be different. A magnum opus of party democracy. A vote for the people, by the people. The result remains the same. And so will the SPD’s descent.