Analysis. The Social Democrats are in crisis, with the latest polls showing them on par with the neo-fascist AfD. Olaf Scholz let slip his chancellor ambitions even as the party refuses to coalesce around a platform.

German Socialists are polling dismally ahead of European elections

The Social Democratic Party is down to 14 percent in the polls, as much as the AfD, and less than half of the percentage of the CDU. Regardless, the SPD Finance Minister has apparently decided to put himself forward as a candidate for chancellor, without informing anyone except the conservative press. Meanwhile, the new SPD leader, Andrea Nahles, is no longer in control of the party’s deputies and governors, who are now holding their own separate meetings, bypassing and excluding her. Not to mention the Young Socialists (Jusos), who have been hostile towards the current leaders of the party ever since the government deal with the CDU, and are still refusing to fall in line behind the “governmentist” policy which is Martin Schulz’s legacy, and which has decimated the party’s popular support during the past 12 months.

The state of crisis of the SPD is obvious, irrefutable and a matter of public notoriety. One telling example was the scheduled summit of the SPD parliamentarians under Nahles’s leadership, which ended on Friday, and which was supposed to officially unveil the party’s 2019 program. Instead, it ended up memorable for the fact that it was preceded by another summit, organized independently in Osnabrück by the party’s deputies from Lower Saxony, Bremen and North Rhine-Westphalia. It was a clear snub, indeed “an affront” to Nehlen, as the Süddeutsche Zeitung (and others) put it, noting that the SPD leader has not had effective authority in the party for a long time now. The Social Democratic world is moving chaotically, in every direction, according to the personal ambitions of each—just like the Democratic Party in Italy.

In January 2018, the former SPD leader, Martin Schulz, after a resounding defeat at the polls just three months before, was already seeing himself as a minister in Merkel’s fourth government. He was caught red-handed negotiating for his own political future, ignoring his responsibility to fight for the demands of his party. Now, a year later, the Social Democrat vice-chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has just admitted that he is aiming for the position of head of government—in an offhand answer to a hypothetical question by the reporters of the notoriously CDU-supporting Bild Group. Just like with Schulz last year, the top leaders of the SPD only learned about this from the newspapers, and immediately threw cold water on Scholz’s self-proclaimed candidature, who is apparently no longer content with merely leading the most important ministry in the country.

“The last thing we need on the eve of the European elections is to start the debate about the candidate for chancellor. In 2019, I expect the leadership to focus on the real priorities of the SPD,” was the curt statement from Sebastian Hartmann, party leader for North Rhine-Westphalia. The governor of Lower Saxony, Stephan Weil, made it a point to explain politely to Scholz that “the issue is not urgent, since there are still two years to go until the federal elections.” The vice-chancellor was also the target of pointed barbs from the members of Jusos, who made clear their displeasure about yet another candidate suddenly dropped on them “from above.”

This picture of intra-party chaos is yet another blow to the beleaguered Nahles, who has taken great damage from the outcome of the explosive scandal involving the former head of counterintelligence (who was found to have passed confidential data on migrants to the AfD): after the calls for his ouster, forced by protests from the SPD’s base, he ended up promoted to an ancillary role at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, with a higher salary than he had before.

Now, with the self-inflicted media snafu of Scholz’s impromptu candidature, Nahles has yet another scandal on her hands, one which—again—is enraging a full three-quarters of her party, starting with its leaders.

When the interviewer from Bild am Sonntag asked Scholz: “Would you be willing to become chancellor?,” the Finance Minister and vice-chancellor replied: “Frau Kramp-Karrenbauer has said that a party leader is expected to be willing to take up this duty. This also applies to the vice-chancellor.”

However, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, the leader of the Christian Democrats, had said those words because she is the designated successor for Merkel’s office, with her blessing and reflecting the will of a majority within the CDU, which just elected her as party leader. As concerns Scholz, the response from the SPD base—which, at its most polite, pointed out that it is “dangerous to debate the issue before the European elections”—should be enough to let him know where he stands. It is precisely such self-important flights of fancy, in defiance of the polls and the will of the voters, that are likely to sentence his party to a historical disaster at the polls.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!