German politics has not been immune to the political trends in Europe and, indeed, the entire developed world. Fringe extremist parties like Alternative für Deutschland have continued to upset more established centrist parties in the local Länder elections, and there are growing cracks within the CDU/CSU alliance headed by Merkel. Donald Trump has only exacerbated these divisions by publicly denouncing the EU and threatening to label Germany a currency manipulator. Merkel has been cautious in her response to Trump, but Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, both members of the center-left SPD, have frequently and unflinchingly denounced Trump. With Germany about to hold national elections this fall, it is an exciting (and worrying) time to be a Germany watcher.
The most interesting recent development has been the surge in SPD support. For the past few years, the center-left in Europe has been moribund. Many supporters have come to view them as sell-outs to neoliberal parties on the right wing of the political spectrum, and lower class voters have become increasingly frustrated with labour parties constantly supporting financial deregulation and free trade. This has been the case in Germany as well. As a result, former SPD voters have largely shifted to either the extreme left (Die Linke) or the extreme right (the AfD). Alternatively, some have just decided to drop out of politics altogether and not vote. This trend has generated a great deal of angst among Europe analysts, as it suggests that the center is even weaker than previously assumed. Fortunately, recent polls suggest that reports of the SPD’s death may be greatly exaggerated.
The recent naming of Martin Schulz as the SPD’s candidate for the chancellorship has appeared to breath new life into the party, and the SPD now appears competitive with the CDU/CSU party of Angela Merkel. Part of this support seems to be coming from previously apathetic voters. Indeed, as Deutsche Welle points out, 1/5 of those planning to vote SPD did not vote in 2013. By contrast, only 1/10 of those planning to vote for the CDU/CSU alliance refused to participate in the 2013 election. This suggests that the SPD has been able to win back many supporters who had previously lost enthusiasm for the party, and that means that the SPD might become increasingly competitive in the coming years. Most of this support seems to be directed at Schulz and not the party platform in general, and that could be good and bad. Schulz’s down to earth nature stands in stark contrast to the cautious and reactive politics of Angela Merkel, and this makes him an inspiring leader. However, as the American Democrats witnessed last year, having a popular party leader isn’t always enough to ensure electoral success. Nevertheless, Schulz has had a great deal of success capitalizing on Germans’ frustrations with the grand coalition of the CDU and SPD and, paradoxically, exploiting disenchantment with the status quo to increase support for the center-left (much like Macron in France and, indeed, very much unlike that imbecile Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K.). According to the Deutsche Welle article cited above, the announcement of Schulz’s candidacy led to a 70% increase in SPD support from previous non-voters, a 30% drop in CDU/CSU support from previous non-voters, and a 40% drop in support for the AfD from previous non-voters. In short, Schulz has made a splash.
What is still unclear, however, is the degree to which Schulz can generate down-ballot support for the SPD in the Länder. After all, despite the immense power of the Bundestag, Germany is still a federal state, and thus it is important to win elections both at the local and national level. With resentment toward the SPD still running high among many on the left, Schulz needs more than frustration with the status quo to guarantee continued support for the SPD. He also needs to craft a positive message that builds enthusiasm and interest in the party in order to ensure that the SPD continues to remain relevant. As The Guardian has pointed out, Schulz has remained somewhat vague about his economic plans and, despite decrying the negative distributional effects of unregulated market liberalization, he has not firmly defended any concrete policies to reign in inequality. If he wants to galvanize more political support from lower class voters, he will likely need to more clearly shift to the left on economic issues. Especially given the whisper campaign against Schulz from the extreme left and center-right, it’s important that he offer a compelling message to the struggling working class.
Regardless of what happens, it’s all but impossible for the SPD to win an outright majority in the Bundestag, and that means that Germany will have another coalition government in 2017. Given the propensity for polls to shift, it’s still far too early to tell exactly what the coalition will look like. Frankly, though, it’s hard to imagine it looking much different from the current arrangement. There is no scenario in which Merkel would ally with the AfD, which means that the CDU/CSU alliance would have no choice but to ally with the SPD again. The SPD is similarly constrained, as Die Linke and Die Grünen (the two parties left of the SPD) will likely fail to garner enough support to form a majority coalition with the SPD. In other words, the German coalition government of 2017 will likely look awfully similar to the one now. The only question is which party will lead the coalition.