Should the CDU and the SDP Shift From the Centre-Ground?

The leaders of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SDP), Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans, were awarded a mandate by their party faithful at a recent party conference to discuss with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Party (CDU) about continuing in government. They also stated what their relatively modest policy demands are.

The SDP is feeling the pressure of remaining in a coalition government with the CDU. A Forsa poll put them on 11 per cent, hitting a low last witnessed in June after previous leader Andrea Nahles quit following their disastrous performance in the European elections. Meanwhile, Merkel’s conservatives gained a percentage point, which left them with a 28 per cent score.

Plummeting poll numbers is certainly one valid reason as to why the SDP feel justified in selecting new leaders. Bloomberg discovered that they are trailing behind the Greens, whose support remained steady at 21.5 per cent. For the last 10 to 14 years, Germany’s traditional centre-left party has been a junior coalition partner to the CDU, targeting the centre-ground and helping Merkel retain office. Walter-Borjans and Esken are both staunch critics of the coalition and they might be able to help their party claw back support from their rivals. They said that under the current Chancellor, Germany is stuck in a ‘neo-liberal wilderness.’

The last time that the SDP won a decent vote share was in the 2002 federal elections when former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder won 38.5 per cent of the vote. Following his removal from office when his party won 34.2 per cent of the vote in the 2005 federal election, their popularity has slowly declined. With Merkel due to retire in 2021, many on the centre-left may be sensing an opportunity to re-establish themselves as a radical alternative.

The SDP leaders want their coalition partners to invest more in infrastructure, introduce tougher climate protection measures and increase the minimum wage. But the CDU have said they will not renegotiate the 2018 coalition deal, which means their centre-left partners risk triggering a year-and-a-half of government infighting before the next federal election. They could also destroy their coalition with Merkel. But both coalition partners are taking huge gambles if they start shifting from the centre-ground.

 As Luuk Molthof wrote for the London School of Economics, the CDU are also finding it hard to resist the temptation of moving further to the right in the face of shrinking support.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the current Chair of the CDU, is keen to please the conservative faction in her party, who are blaming the Chancellor’s open-door refugee policy for poor performances in recent regional elections. This is despite the fact that candidates from both the CDU and the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria, criticised the coalition’s refugee policy.

But they did not lose support to the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) Party; instead the Greens won votes from both the CDU and the SDP. This is why both parties would be making a huge mistake in shifting their policy positions. The Greens have managed to reinvent themselves as a centrist party and that is why they are appealing to both conservative and social democratic voters.

Despite pressure from her own party to quit, 59 per cent of Germans want Merkel to remain in office until the next federal election, which proves there is an appetite for centrist politics in Germany.

Shifting further to the left may give the SDP a new identity, but when they are facing stiff competition from both the CDU and the Greens, they risk being pushed out of the centre-ground by becoming more radical. Either way, they are at risk of losing votes. But the CDU would also be making a substantial electoral error if they abandon the centre-ground at a time when their support remains high, despite improving poll positions from both the Greens and the AfD.