This article was originally published on December 21, 2017, and republished without changes in February 2018.
When he arrived at an early morning pre-Christmas meeting with a group of parliamentarians, Martin Schulz, the head of the Social Democrats, or SPD, was clearly not in the holiday spirit. He came to blow off steam among trusted colleagues from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, an SPD stronghold. “I know who the snipers are in the party,” he said without mentioning any names. “I would have expected much more support.”
Mr. Schulz is learning the hard way what it’s like to be at the helm of a notoriously quarrelsome party. Sometimes it’s deputy chair and Hamburg Mayor Olaf Scholz, who has party leadership dreams of his own and likes to take a swing at him. Sometimes it’s the former party chairman, Sigmar Gabriel, who forgets he’s no longer king of the hill. He recently steered the debate toward populist topics like homeland and “Leitkultur” (cultural identity) to put Mr. Schulz in a bad light. And sometimes it’s the women in the party who like to rebel, with parliamentary group head Andrea Nahles leading the charge.
Never before in its 154-year-old history has the SPD been in such dire need of visionary, charismatic leadership — of someone who can win votes and big elections, a la Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schröder. This fall the party brought home its worst federal election results since WWII, just over 20 percent. Mr. Schulz took the blame and promptly announced that the days of cooperating with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats had “come to an end.” Those words came back to haunt Mr. Schulz — and seriously contest his role as party leader — when coalition talks between the chancellor’s conservatives, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Greens collapsed in November, shifting the spotlight back on to the Social Democrats.
So what to do without looking like a turncoat? Try to wiggle out of it intact. “We don’t have to govern at any price, but we must reject governing at all costs,” Mr. Schulz told delegates at the December party congress, many of whom loathe the idea of governing again in Ms. Merkel’s deep shadow. The delegates listened, debated and eventually agreed not only to keep Mr. Schulz as party chairman, but also to kick off exploratory talks with the chancellor’s conservatives that could lead to a new coalition government early next year.
Of course, the talks scheduled for early January could fail — the SPD is demanding the finance and foreign minister positions and an end to private health insurance, among other things — and if they do, the Social Democrats may find themselves scrambling for a new chancellor candidate and possibly a new party chair. Or they may just want a new leader regardless.
So who’s on Mr. Schulz’s coattails? There are three promising candidates, and at the top of the list is Ms. Nahles. On one of their first days sitting together in the front row of the Bundestag, Ms. Nahles briefly leaned far to her left and Mr. Schulz far to the right. Their body language could not have been more revealing. The party boss is a moderate who can work with the chancellor. By contrast, the SPD’s parliamentary head, a lifelong politician, hopes to revive the crisis-ridden party by steering it back to its leftist roots and winning back the working class. In her role as labor minister, Ms. Nahles introduced Germany's first nationwide minimum wage against fierce resistance. She is also the first woman to lead the SPD’s parliamentary group, making her arguably the most powerful woman in the party’s long, storied history. Ms. Nahles made that clear to reporters when asked about transitioning from the government to the opposition. “Starting tomorrow, we'll be punching them in the face," Ms. Nahles joked.
Also high on the list is Manuela Schwesig. Once dismissed as "Seaside Barbie" because of her youthful good looks, she has earned a reputation as a fighter with a will of iron. That strength, she claims, stems partly from her upbringing in communist East Germany, which collapsed when she was 15, throwing her parents out of work. As state minister for welfare and health in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, one of Germany's most economically depressed states, she had to deal first-hand with economic realities uprooting family lives. In July, she succeeded a colleague diagnosed with cancer as state premier of Mecklenberg-West Pomerania, becoming Germany’s youngest state leader at 43.
Perhaps lesser known outside Germany but highly respected among the SPD rank and file is Maria Louise Anna "Malu" Dreyer, the state premier of Rhineland-Palatinate. Proof of her popularity was the 97.5 percent of the vote she won this month in her first run as SPD vice chair; by comparison, chancellor candidate hopeful Mr. Scholz mustered only 59.2 percent. Since she was 34, Ms. Dreyer has been open about her battle with multiple sclerosis, a disorder of the nervous system. The left-leaning-politician also served a one-year-term as president of Germany’s upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, becoming only the second woman to hold that position. Among her fans is Mr. Schulz himself. “Every minute with Malu is a good minute,” he once said.
Whether that remains so, however, is questionable. Ms. Dreyer is not a fan of another “grand coalition” and may throw up roadblocks in the exploratory talks. And Mr. Schulz is all too aware of Ms. Nahles’ ambitions. In her high school graduation album, she famously said of her career plans that she either wanted to be a "housewife or chancellor."
John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]