Sigmar Gabriel A Fading Political Star

The Social Democrats' setback in elections in the city-state of Bremen last weekend showed that the SPD leader faces an uphill battle to replace Angela Merkel and become chancellor in 2017.
Not happy with Bremen's election result: Sigmar Gabriel, SPD leader.

Revolutions in Germany’s federal government only happen through the villages.

If the Social Democrats' leader and current vice-chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, wants to win the office of chancellor in the 2017 federal elections he needs the help of strong red-green governments of SPD and the Green Party in German states.

The power to change the government in Berlin comes from state capitals such as Stuttgart, Mainz or Düsseldorf. In the states of Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia alone, about 32 million citizens will be voting in 2016 and 2017 on federal politics.

However, there is seems to be no change of mood in the making, quite the contrary. The trend is against Mr. Gabriel and his dream of a red-green coalition.

The election setback in the city state of Bremen last week, where the local SPD received 15 percent less votes, and the subsequent resignation of the Social Democratic mayor have dealt a harsh blow to Mr. Gabriel's plans.

The defeat in the workers' bastion of Bremen is already symptomatic for the political situation of the social democrats.

Purely mathematically, a red-green coalition at the federal level has by now become a straw to which only bold SPD strategists are still clinging. The Social Democrats bring at most 25 percent into the marriage, the Greens only 10 percent. That will not ever be enough. In addition, there is no red-green campaign issue which would propel the parties into federal government.

Citizens are not waiting for a social-ecological reconstruction of Germany; the energy transition has already been factored in by the public. When it comes to climate protection, Germany is the model student. A strict school of pacifism will not help to win many votes in a time of upcoming conflicts.

And yet after Bremen, even the optimists within the SPD ranks are rightly asking themselves how to be successful at the important state elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, if only a few months earlier they lost the former SPD bastion of Bremen.

There, the red-green coalition will continue to govern, but the result was a shock for the SPD whose impact was felt even in Berlin. In the city state, the SPD glamor was gone after 70 years of government. The electorate had had enough of the taillight when it comes to unemployment, education and public debts.

The SPD simply could not convince its own clientele that they could close the gap between the rich and the poor.

Mr. Gabriel's general secretary, Yasmin Fahimi, has blamed the election result on the special situation of Bremen. And yet the defeat in the workers' bastion is already symptomatic for the political situation of the social democrats.

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After the defeat in Bremen, the SPD therefore immediately started looking ahead, at the other upcoming state elections.But its prospects there aren't any better than in last week's vote.

It is true that the situation is different in the model state of Baden-Württemberg than it is Bremen. The state's coalition of Greens and Social Democrats can point at great economic results. Companies are no longer afraid of Winfried Kretschmann, the Greens' state governor. The right man in the wrong party, is what Social Democrats in the state say about the politician. Popular Mr. Kretschmann will receive the voter bonus for being the incumbent governor.

However, most of the new followers he gains come from the SPD, according to polls, and not from the Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling conservative Christian Democratic Union.

In Rhineland Palatinate, the trend also doesn't seem to favor the traditional trade-union party SPD anymore. Malu Dreyer, the Social Democratic minister president, seems likeable, but her party has lost its color after being in power for more than two decades. The party is simply not able to rid itself of the scandals surrounding the building of the Nürburgring, a 150,000 capacity motorsports complex.

The much needed boost for Mr. Gabriel will therefore not come from these two states.

North Rhine-Westphalia remains the last hope. Should the SPD’s Hannelore Kraft be confirmed there as state governor, Mr. Gabriel can be certain to face a debate on whether he is the right candidate for chancellor.

However, what is striking is the seeming lack of options to form a coalition that commands a majority, in contrast to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who can pick her coalition partner freely.

Mr. Gabriel has ruled out a red-red-green coalition of SPD, the Left party and the Greens for economic and foreign policy reasons – at least in 2017.

After losing all seats in 2013, the Liberal Democratic Party FDP must first win back its position in federal parliament, the Bundestag, in order to be able to at least theoretically bring about a change in power through a coalition with the SPD and the Greens. Who will vote for the FDP, however, if in effect their vote goes to a red-green coalition is yet a whole other question.

This position of weakness might explain Mr. Gabriel’s hardline stance against Ms. Merkel in the so-called spying affair, where the German Federal Intelligence Service BND is accused of spying on behalf of the U.S. National Security Agency.

The Social Democrats are trying everything to damage the chancellor to reduce the gap in the polls. It is clear to all in the SPD: the party must make it past the 30 percent threshold in the 2017 elections. The Greens must get over 10 percent. Otherwise, there is no real option to gain power – and Mr. Gabriel remains only a token candidate against Ms. Merkel.


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