Analysis. The German Social Democrats have gone through 10 leaders since Angela Merkel came to power. Now, as secretary Andrea Nahles calls snap elections, the only item on the agenda is who to blame for election day losses.

Germany’s Social Democrats are in disarray after election defeat

Germany Social Democratic Party Secretary Andrea Nahles has surprised everyone by asking for an early confidence vote for the position of leader of the party’s group in the Bundestag, which she has held since 2017. Former leader Martin Schulz is dreaming of a comeback, imagining that he would be the one to replace Nahles late in the summer. And the head of the SPD’s youth organization, Kevin Kuhnert, is using every opportunity to criticize the SPD leadership, which, according to him, “gave away” the under-30 vote to the Greens by relaunching the next Fridays For Future and supporting a number of initiatives in the environmentalist field.

The coming showdown in the SPD is shaping up as a war of everyone against everyone, in the name of the only item on the agenda that can draw the support of all the various currents within the party that used to style itself “the party of the people”: finding the right scapegoat for the resounding defeat in the European elections.

This objective has become a full-fledged political process, with both elevated debates and—most notably—very low-ball tactics. For instance, Schulz’s so-called “Putsch” (as the daily Bild has called it), the “secret” plan by the former president of the European Parliament to unseat Nahles, is all over the front pages in Germany.

The plan was already at an advanced stage, and it was stopped in its tracks both by the leak to the media and, even more importantly, by Schulz’s awareness that he would not be able to become Nahles’s successor.

As a result, the architect of the coalition deal with Angela Merkel was forced on Wednesday to say, loud and clear: “I will not run for the post of European group leader,” denying that the plan had been fueled by his personal ambitions and insisting that, on the contrary, he had “worked for the SPD for the last 94 weeks without running for any office.”

In fact, the former secretary was caught off guard by Nahles’s unexpected move. A former “student” of Schulz’s, she has learned the lessons of her old mentor well, and is betting her own position with perfect political timing for her advantage. “Next Tuesday, I will ask you to re-elect the leader,” the SPD leader announced suddenly, many months before September, when the changing of the guard was set to take place. The unexpected maneuver managed to unsettle all her opponents. In fact, no one in the party is currently prepared to run to replace her, as they haven’t yet set up their own “electoral” campaigns in support of their candidacies.

One of those caught unprepared was Matthias Miersch, born in 1968, member of the executive board of the SPD and an influential representative of the SPD’s left wing, which has always focused on environmental issues, whose renewed prominence the party is now trying to take advantage of. He was perfect in the role of a “compromise candidate,” but he said yesterday he was pulling out of the race: “I do not intend to take Andrea’s place.”

Another serious contender who withdrew in light of Nahles’s announcement is the 51-year-old Johann Saathoff, head of the SPD group in the parliament of Lower Saxony, who had harsh criticism for Nahles’s move to organize the leadership election early: “If you focus on the actual policies, and not on the people running, then there is no reason to eliminate the summer break. In my opinion, this is not a sign of leadership,” he said in a live interview on the Phoenix station.

He also blamed Schulz, who got “burned” as his plan was uncovered by the national press. Yesterday, the latter was forced to address the insinuations that have again put him on the defensive. The former party leader blamed “speculative voices that put me in a bad light,” as well as the rumors “arising from the contents of a confidential conversation that I had with Nahles two weeks ago.” The deputy Carsten Schneider, the long-running first secretary of the SPD’s Bundestag group (the second position after the group leader), took aim at Schulz, although not naming him directly: “One needs to have the courage to enter the ring alone. Or shut up.”

Fighting words are par for the course in the current climate, marked by “damaging rumbling which began before the European elections,” as Schneider pointed out. According to him, the only reason behind Nahles’s request for an early election was “the need to show clarity ahead of the elections in Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia in the fall.”

For now, however, the fact remains that the SPD has gone through 10 different leaders since Merkel first came to power.

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