An old party, made up of aging members and led by a politician with the charisma of a middle-ranking bank clerk. A party that suffered a humiliating decline, going from being a national institution to a losing horse in elections, like its peers across Europe. The obituary of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) was already written.
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However, with the election campaign in Germany about to enter its home stretch, Olaf Scholz’s center-left party is enjoying a surge of energy as its rivals begin to lag behind.
Comeback in the polls
The latest five polls released last week show the SPD outperforming Los Verdes, who, it seemed, were in a position to fight for the top spot in the spring.
According to a poll published a week ago by the INSA pollster, the SPD tied with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) – party of the outgoing Chancellor, Angela Merkel – for the first time since spring 2017. Both formations obtain 22% of the votes each.
Under the German proportional voting system, Scholz could become the next chancellor even if his party came in second behind the CDU. His great idol, Helmut Schmidt, did it in 1976.
According to the latest polls, the SPD would have to rule out the possibility of forming a conservative coalition with the Christian Democrats and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and convince the pro-business and anti-tax FDP to join a deal deal of power together with the SPD and Los Verdes.
If only Scholz’s name, rather than his party’s, appeared on the ballot on September 26, he would be the undisputed favorite. According to a poll released last week, 41% of those polled said they would vote directly for him as chancellor if possible, compared with 16% who would choose Merkel’s appointed center-right successor Armin Laschet and 12 % who would choose the candidate of Los Verdes, Annalena Baerbock.
The difficulties of the two old favorites are the main factor in explaining the resurgence of the Social Democrats. “Scholz’s current strength is largely due to the weakness of his rivals,” says Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin.
Approval ratings for Baerbock and Laschet, neither of whom have held ministerial positions at the national level, have declined as voters got a chance to scrutinize their profiles more closely and imagine them in Merkel’s place. They both seem prone to screw up.
Scholz, the current finance minister, former labor minister and former mayor of Hamburg, has also not shone much in the campaign. But the taciturn North, formerly nicknamed “Scholzomat” for his monotonous cadence of speech, has not been wrong either.
The SPD campaign
The SPD campaign is going more calmly than expected. Scholz, who comes from the party’s right wing, was nominated even though the SPD is led by two members of his left wing: Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken, to whom Scholz lost in the party leadership race ago. barely a year and a half.
During the campaign, the two sectors have made the internal truce of the party a compelling spectacle. Last week, at the UFA film studios in Berlin, Scholz shared the stage with Kevin Kühnert, the former left-wing leader of the SPD youths who in 2018 staged a rebellion to prevent the party from forming an alliance with the CDU.
Kühnert, who in the past supported the collectivization of large German companies such as BMW, remained faithful to the script, being skeptical of the referendum that will take place in the German capital on the same day as the national elections, in which they will vote on expropriation from large homeowners.
In return, Scholz has embraced a policy championed by the traditional left as one of his campaign’s strong promises: raising the minimum wage from 9.50 to 12 euros per hour in the first year of his term.
The move would only affect 1.4 million people and may not speak to your deepest beliefs.
“Traditionally, the centrist wing to which Scholz belongs has argued that social justice needs to be redefined as social mobility,” says Anke Hassel, Professor of Public Policy at the Hertie School in Berlin.
“Instead of the state just providing a safety net, they insisted that it help people move up through education,” Hassel says. “The speech of the SPD is more conciliatory: we will make sure that those who cannot get promoted are not left out.”
But promises like the 12-euro minimum wage and a new 1% wealth tax have also given the center-left campaign the kind of memorable messages the CDU has lacked until now.
The CDU, the strongest rival
Social Democrats say support for the social safety net in Germany is popular with voters. The problem is that, for the last 16 years, Angela Merkel has taken credit for those policies developed by the SPD.
To be the direct or indirect winner in the September elections, Scholz will have to convince the undecided that he not only cares about the excluded, but also understands the needs of Europe’s largest economy.
“The CDU doesn’t understand economics at all,” he said with unusual volume to him, on stage in Berlin’s Tempelhof district, last week.
As someone who has barely defied German tax orthodoxy during his four years as finance minister, Scholz may be more up to the task than his rival – polls suggest he is the chancellor’s favorite even among voters. of the FDP, liberal in the social but conservative in the fiscal.
“There used to be a prejudice among the German electorate that the Social Democrats could not be trusted with the economy,” says Neugebauer. “Scholz has definitely transformed the reputation of the party, previously considered wasteful.”
However, poll after poll shows that the majority of voters still trust Merkel’s CDU to run the economy and consequently ensure the financial well-being of Germans.
“Right now, Scholz may seem like a one-eyed man among the blind,” says Neugebauer. “But in Germany, voting behavior is traditionally less determined by personalities than by parties.”
Translation by Julián Cnochaert.