160 years SPD – (no) reason to celebrate

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The SPD leads the federal government and provides chancellor Olaf Scholz. Still, the mood is bad. She fell in the polls. Things are not going well in the coalition with the Greens and FDP.

Germany's oldest party

A reason to celebrate – in the SPD headquarters in Berlin, that doesn't happen all that often anymore. Every success report is all the more appreciated. “It's a nice evening for us today. We're extremely proud of the SPD in Bremen and Bremerhaven,” said SPD General Secretary Kevin Kühnert after the Social Democrats had won the general election in the northern German city-state on May 14.

“Stand by me”: SPD leader Lars Klingbeil (right) and Bremen's mayor Andreas Bovenschulte advertised in the election campaign also musically for assistance

Of course it wasn't. It was almost evocative when SPD mayor Andreas Bovenschulte sang “Stand by me” at the end of the election campaign, a musical call to voters to stand by him. SPD boss Lars Klingbeil, who had come from Berlin for reinforcements, supported him on the guitar. In the end, the SPD achieved the second-worst result in Bremen in more than 70 years, at 29.8 percent.

Chancellor's Party plummeting

In Berlin they now want to learn from Bremen. Secretary-General Kühnert said they would take a closer look at how the victory went. The federal SPD can only dream of the Bremen result. While the CDU/CSU is over 30 percent in polls, the SPD languishes between 17 and 19 percent and competes with the Greens and the right-wing AfD for second place in the party spectrum. Never in the history of the Federal Republic has a chancellor party had such low approval ratings.

Did Olaf Scholz and the SPD only win the federal elections in September 2021 because the CDU chancellor candidate made too many mistakes during the election campaign and was too weak?

Short flight

A look at the polls in the election year and afterwards shows that the Social Democrats were able to improve enormously before the general election. From 16 percent in July 2021 to almost 26 percent in September. The high flight lasted until spring 2022, since then the numbers have been down again. Bitter for the SPD: Political scientists speak of a people's party if it can unite at least 20 percent of the votes.

CDU Chancellor candidate Armin Laschet laughs in the Ahr Valley, which was destroyed by the flood disaster, while Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier makes a press statement. After that, Laschet's poll numbers plummeted

Is the “comeback of social democracy” celebrated by the SPD already history? As before the federal election, membership numbers continue to decline, and even in the big cities where the SPD used to have a lot of support, it is losing. The most recent example: the federal state of Berlin. In the city-state, the CDU took over the town hall again after 22 years of social democratic government.

Things are looking really bad in eastern Germany. In Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt, the SPD's approval ratings in polls are in the single digits.

Return to social issues

The 160th birthday of the SPD falls into this low mood. The oldest still existing party in Germany celebrates for three days with speeches, podiums, exhibitions and award ceremonies. A welcome opportunity to catch your breath, to recharge your batteries and also an opportunity to become more visible again within the governing coalition. The motto of the celebrations in the Willy Brandt House, the SPD headquarters in Berlin: “Progress needs justice”.

The Chancellor is busy with foreign policy: Olaf Scholz with Volodymyr Zelenskyj at the reception in front of the Chancellery

The social question is something like the core competence of the SPD. But it is de facto overshadowed by the war in Ukraine and its consequences. The SPD chancellor is primarily concerned with foreign policy, the SPD interior minister with migration, and the SPD labor minister is struggling with a shortage of skilled workers. In view of the inflation and the tense situation on the construction market, there is no longer any talk of the SPD's central election promise to have 400,000 apartments built every year.

The traffic light is in dispute

The SPD works in the Traffic light coalition with the Greens and the FDP rather pale and profileless. The headlines are dominated by the dispute between the Liberals and the Greens over climate protection. The end of oil and gas heating from 2024, promoted by the Greens, scares many people and drives voters to the opposition.

Bad mood at the traffic lights: Christian Lindner (FDP), Federal Finance Minister, Olaf Scholz (SPD), Federal Chancellor, and Robert Habeck (Greens), Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection (from left)

Because of inflation, the cost of living has risen significantly anyway, and those who have no financial reserves are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. The SPD now wants to visibly step on the brakes on the Building Energy Act. Climate protection is important, but the price should not overwhelm the public, they say. It must be improved, solutions must be “technically feasible and socially presentable,” says Labor Minister Hubertus Heil.

There is rumbling in the SPD

If the SPD now also wants to make a stronger impression in the traffic light, that should cause even more tension in the coalition. However, a conflicting government never goes down well with voters. That must be worrying in the SPD headquarters. Poor performance – as the history of the party shows – often enough led to internal disputes and self-mutilation among the Social Democrats. Even SPD bosses, who actually loved the party, fell over this.

Anxious expressions: Saskia Esken, SPD -Federal President, and Lars Klingbeil, SPD Federal President

Dissatisfaction is already growing in the SPD. There is rumbling, especially in the strong left wing of the party, which has always been extremely contentious. In 2019, the left wing prevented Olaf Scholz, who is more anchored in the right-wing social democratic spectrum, from becoming party leader. Since Scholz has been chancellor, the left wing has kept quiet and bowed to party discipline.

Personality is becoming more and more important

Scholz was never particularly popular in the SPD, but is respected as chancellor and estimated. A benevolence that is linked to success. The party is only behind him as long as he can deliver. In this situation, it could actually be helpful to take a closer look at the SPD's election victory in Bremen. In the city-state, a social democrat impressed with down-to-earthness, approachability and popularity.

The personality factor is becoming increasingly important in voting decisions, as other state elections have shown in recent years. Olaf Scholz has little to offer on this point. He often seems brittle and is perceived as emotionless and unapproachable. Learning from Bremen, so that could be difficult.