When I arrived 45 minutes before the start of Handelsblatt’s Energy Conference at the Intercontinental Hotel in Berlin yesterday, I found one of our prominent speakers, Vice Chancellor and Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel, already there, reading alone in the Marlene Bar, his bodyguard nearby.
When I joined him, he put his speech aside, and we had a cup of coffee. He was alert and cheerful, acutely interested in the pressing problems of our day: the state of affairs in Europe, the secessionist British, the raging new U.S. president. The Social Democratic leader was ready to talk.
And talk we did. We discussed German leaders capable of dealing with these challenges – from Chancellor Angela Merkel and former European Parliament President Martin Schulz to Gabriel himself. He wasn’t despondent but reflective, not chatty but analytical, and blunt when it came to himself. There are few politicians who have no illusions about themselves. Gabriel sounded like a man at peace with who he is.
Later that morning, speaking to 1,200 managers from the energy industry, Gabriel called for political integrity. “Broken campaign promises are small crimes against democracy,” he said. Later in the day, he pulled the ripcord on his career, ending his political arc and tossing aside a set of expectations he had set in motion.
Gabriel unexpectedly resigned as party chairman, economics minister and – most importantly – as the SPD’s candidate for chancellor this September. We’ll never know if he saw the shoes of his party’s ex-chancellors Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schröder as too big to fill. He decided not to even try them on, his ambitions left at the shoe rack.
Toward the end of his seven-year party chairmanship, the SPD’s rank and file gave Gabriel little encouragement to grab for the Chancellery. They never forgave him for wanting to govern, not protest. They pushed him repeatedly to back off from ex-Chancellor Schröder’s Agenda 2010 program, a series of reforms to the welfare system and labor market that later fueled Germany’s economic juggernaut. Gabriel refused. His successes, most recently the free-trade agreement with Canada, were viewed by many in his own party as a humiliating loss of face. Under such conditions, chancellor candidate is another term for pain therapy.
The SPD is Germany’s most unfortunate political party because it doesn’t know what it wants. Even if it knows what it doesn’t want, that’s not the same thing.
The party’s pain often begins the day a new government takes over and the media use terrifying words like coalition agreement, compromise and responsibility. Its grassroots base wants to hear completely different language, words like resistance, opposition and countermotions.
So for many Social Democrats, the news of Gabriel’s resignation was music to their ears. Party bosses love fresh resignations like sharks love blood. Maybe that’s why the SPD uses red as its official color.
To the outside world, everything may look like the voluntary retreat of a party chairman. But we shouldn’t be deceived. In its more than 150-year history, the SPD has mastered the skill of making political murders look like accidents. From Brandt and Schröder to Franz Münterfering, party chairmen have always “voluntarily’’ jumped ship after the party base’s quietly pushed them. The SPD may not know how to win elections but it certainly knows how to abandon a leader.
At its party convention on Sunday, the SPD must choose a chancellor candidate after Gabriel’s abrupt retreat. Martin Schulz’s name will be on the ballot. But he’s just another illusion created by the SPD, the latest hopeful in line to become Angela Merkel’s newest victim. After yesterday’s change at the top of the SPD, the German chancellor has in essence extended her term of office by another four years.
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