The Social Democrats and others need to offer credible solutions to rising inequality if they want to compete with the strong and stable chancellor.
The German elections on 24 September are bound to be boring. Polls show Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) leading the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) by 15 percentage points. Absent a miracle for the SPD, Merkel will be re-elected as chancellor for the fourth time. The really interesting question is: why?
Merkel has an unmatched ability to disarm her opponents and demobilise their supporters. Take the recent legalisation of gay marriage. Merkel realised her party’s official opposition would cost her votes. So she allowed MPs a free vote, which meant that gay marriage passed by a landslide. Merkel herself voted against the motion to protect her conservative credentials, but the issue was politically neutralised.
This episode is telling of Merkel’s leadership style. Instead of vacating the centre ground to the SPD or the Greens, she integrates many of their more leftwing policies into a Christian-conservative narrative. She applied the same strategy in abolishing conscription, introducing a minimum wage, ending nuclear power and introducing modern parental benefits.
Her response to the refugee crisis in 2015 alienated some rightwing voters, and contributed to the emergence of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), but Merkel was willing to take that risk. She was right: the AfD stands to gain voters from all parties at the election, not just the CDU/CSU. Merkel’s party will remain the largest party in the Bundestag and will likely be indispensable for any governing coalition. Merkel’s relatively open stance on refugees has also helped to convince left-leaning and young voters that the country is in good hands: an extraordinary 57% of 18-21 year olds prefer the conservative Merkel to Schulz as chancellor.
The SPD has failed to counter the CDU/CSU’s strategy of disarmament and demobilisation. Martin Schulz’s brief poll lead at the beginning of the year showed that after 12 years of Merkel as chancellor, there was a desire for change. But the Social Democrats have failed to deliver: their programme struggles to distinguish itself from Merkel’s platform. For those voters who do want change, the SPD is not offering enough. If the SPD is to reclaim lost ground and mobilise its voters, it needs to be more radically social-democratic. And there is plenty of scope to be bold.
First, Germany has one of the largest low-wage sectors in Europe, at 23%. The SPD should put together a new agenda that aims to halve the number of people on low wages. Second, the SPD wants to increase public investment, but is too cautious. Municipalities do most of the investing in Germany but labour under a debt burden of €144bn (£131bn). A complete municipal debt jubilee in return for increased local investment would be a bold policy, popular and radically different from the CDU/CSU’s. Third, there is plenty of scope for programmes to help parents, especially single parents. The SPD could set out a plan to turn Germanyinto a Scandinavian paradise for them.
Even in policy areas where the SPD campaigns on a platform that differs from CDU/CSU policy, the Social Democrats have not succeeded in shaping domestic debate.
Take Germany’s security policy: SPD foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel spoke to the doubts of many when he said that Germany should not just be “buying tanks, driving defence spending to insane heights and escalating the arms race”. But rather than present an independent vision for future defence policy, the SPD has got bogged down in criticism of Merkel’s support of Nato’s 2% spending target, and has started a petty fight over the CDU/CSU’s alleged kowtowing to the US.
Die Linke also helps Merkel win. In both 2005 and 2013, the left-of-centre parties (Die Linke, the Greens and the SPD) had a majority in parliament, but the CDU/CSU still ended up leading “grand coalition” governments, because Die Linke was considered by centrist voters to be unfit. Their radical proposals have cost the Social Democrats votes in this year’s campaign, too, because Martin Schulz cannot credibly rule out a red-red-green coalition under his leadership.
Finally, Merkel benefits from the status quo. Germany’s economy is doing well; the federal government’s fiscal situation is excellent; the political situation in Europe and the world is scary enough that Germans want an experienced leader (Merkel wins that contest against Schulz hands down). Germany’s population also has a median age of almost 47, a bracket that prefers stability over reform.
If Merkel wins again in September, the SPD should not enter another grand coalition. As Merkel’s junior partner, the Social Democrats would once again get bogged down in compromises, instead of developing convincing alternatives. Instead, Germany’s left should use the next four years to do some serious soul-searching, to ensure that the elections in 2021 are, by German standards, a bit more exciting.