Next week might see the biggest surge in public support the Social Democrats (SPD) have seen in years, following a drastic leadership reshuffle. Not only did the SPD nominate Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier as their candidate to challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel in next year’s general election, but it also forced out party leader Kurt Beck, to be replaced by his predecessor Franz Muentefering.
Steinmeier’s nomination had long been expected (though not its timing -- it was expected for autumn). However, the return of Muentefering to the party leadership only days after his return to politics (he had resigned form all offices in November 2007 to care for his dying wife) was a complete surprise.
Shot in the arm
This clear and swift break with the Beck-era is exactly what the SPD needed, to prevent Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) from ending the ‘grand coalition’ government and forcing an early election, in order to capitalise on the SPD’s plummeting approval ratings.
Beck’s indecisiveness over the SPD’s political concept and future strategy, coupled with his increasing unpopularity (within and outside the party), has been disastrous for the party. The party slowly drifted towards the left to fight off growing competition from the new Left Party. It revised some of the previous SPD government’s pro-market reforms (then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s ‘Agenda 2010’) and flirted with the Left Party about possible regional coalitions. Nevertheless, the party continued to lose voters on the left, while alienating its centrist supporters.
Appointing the currently most popular German politician (Steinmeier) and third-most popular (Muentefering) to its top jobs will certainly help the SPD resonate with the electorate. Moreover, the two new figures’ close association with the Schroeder reforms (Steinmeier was Schroeder’s chief of staff, while Muentefering was party leader and responsible for steering Agenda 2010 through parliament) will put the SPD back into the centre, making it an attractive coalition partner for the traditionally more centre-right Liberals (FDP). Since the SPD has ruled out a federal-level coalition with the Left Party, it will need to be to open to a three-party coalition with both the Greens and FDP, if it wants a workable majority without repeating the ‘grand coalition’. Within days of the SPD leadership change, the Liberals announced that they might not enter their traditional pre-electoral coalition pledge with the CDU.
It is true that Steinmeier is popular for being foreign minister -- few Germans perceive him as an SPD politician. He is a relative stranger to party politics, has never held elected office, and having come to power though a successful civil service, rather than party, career. However, party affairs are not his concern: his task will be to lure back disillusioned voters, while Muentefering takes care of party discipline and unity. The close identification of both with Schroeder’s reforms risks alienating the party’s left wing, but all in the SPD recognize their leadership will be the SPD’s best hope of a credible challenge to Merkel next September. The left will co-operate for now.
Steinmeier and Muentefering still have a ten-point support gap between SPD and CDU to bridge, a challenge which might prove insurmountable. However, whatever the outcome next September, the revamped SPD promises to make the contest-- which until last week appeared to be over before it had even begun -- exciting.