Power struggle Social Democrats Agonize Over Killer Instinct

Despite pressure mounting on Chancellor Angela Merkel over the refugee crisis, Germany's junior coalition party is struggling to make political capital out of it. Now Social Democrat bosses are debating whether it should be more ruthless.
SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel hopes to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor in 2017.

Over the weekend, as snow blanketed Brandenburg state, Germany's Social Democrat Party gathered behind closed doors in a red brick building in the small town of Nauen, around 30 km west of Berlin. But the members of the left-leaning junior government coalition partner weren't there for the picturesque 19th century architecture or the town's 20th century history as a short wave broadcast center. The delegates were there to determine the party's future direction.

“We have to ensure that Germany's federal states remain unified,” was SPD Chairman and federal Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel's main message to the party. He stressed the need for a strategy to build national strength, comprising education, integration, accommodation supply, and jobs.

Mr. Gabriel called on Chancellor Angela Merkel, leader of the Christian Democrats, the senior coalition partner, to find a solution to the refugee crisis by spring. After more than 1 million asylum-seekers arrived in the country last year, he said the demand for fast-tracked deportation of people who are not granted refugee status belies the fact that “we are still not able to process asylum applications as quickly as we promised.”

“We have to stick to what we've promised, instead of every day launching some new idea,” he said.

With the refugee crisis and international terrorism in such a critical stage it's not the time to start a dispute within the government. Heiko Maas, Justice Minister and SPD board member

The integration of asylum-seekers is one of three main themes occupying party bosses. It's intimately connected with the second major concern, the fight against rising right-wing extremism; and the third objective is a strategy to modernize the national economy.

The starting point is not particularly encouraging. Although Ms. Merkel is increasingly coming under pressure over the refugee crisis, the SPD can't gain political traction from it. In the polls they remain at an unedifying 25 percent. And instead of getting behind their party chairman, a poll of delegates at the recent party congress showed an alarmingly low level of support for Mr. Gabriel.

In a Handelsblatt interview just prior to the conclave, former chancellor and SPD leader Gerhard Schröder advised his party that they must act in a more politically astute manner.

“If the SPD wants to regain the chancellorship, the party has to make power-politics a greater priority,” he said.

Federal Justice Minister and SPD board member Heiko Maas warns against attacking the chancellor as his superior, Mr. Gabriel, is doing.

“With the refugee crisis and international terrorism in such a critical stage it's not the time to start a dispute within the government,” Mr. Maas warns. He says the people expect politicians to deliver solutions to the country's problems, and that an internecine dispute would be detrimental to all parties. He says that as the refugee crisis continues, people will be looking intensively at the activities and positions of the parties.

SPD Deputy Chairman Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel says that sometimes there's a lack of focus in the party.

“We need to come across more confidently and put out a clearer message as to what we want,” he says.

And the SPD's secretary general, Katarina Barley, said on the sidelines of the party congress: “For us it's not about power for power's sake, but power to implement policy. That is the way in which the SPD needs to be more power-conscious.”

Thomas Oppermann, the SPD parliamentary leader, agrees. “I am always in favor of the SPD being power-conscious,” he says, “and that in its role as partner in the ruling coalition the party is also conscious of its responsibilities.” The country has bigger problems, he says, adding that solving these problems is the task of the SPD.

Party Popularity-01

Participants in the party conclave in Nauen said there had been an “honest debate.” Even the more critical voices acknowledged that there had been a “communication process” in the party. Discussions were of sufficient intensity that the appearance of renowned campaign advertising guru and strategist Frank Stauss had to be delayed. He was there to analyze the current situation as a starting point for strategy development.

Also on the agenda was the so-called “Modernization Pact for Germany.”

In the ten-page paper, which Handelsblatt has seen a copy of, the SPD calls for additional private and public investment of €60 billion ($65.4 billion) a year for the next ten years. They argue that this investment is necessary for Germany to create and maintain competitiveness, economic strength, social security, environmental sustainability and growth.

“There can be no ideological taboos when it comes to funding this modernization pact,” says the paper, prepared by the Baden-Württemberg state economics and finance minister Nils Schmid. It adds that Germany can't afford to rule out private funding sources for a private-public investment partnership, or the option of financing of long-term projects through public borrowing.


Heike Anger is a correspondent in the parliamentary editorial office in Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected]