SPD in head-to-head race for new leadership: a pivotal moment for the party

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On the first weekend of December, the Social Democrats will elect a new leadership and the stakes are high. Centrist Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz and little-known party member Klara Geywitz are up against the more left-leaning Norbert Walter-Borjans (NoWaBo) and MP Saskia Esken.

The stakes are clear: Finance Minister Scholz, the most prominent face of the party at this point, represents the SPD’s centrist wing, which wants to continue the Grand Coalition with CDU/CSU and has relatively moderate centre-left positions. Esken and Walter-Borjans, who have the support of Kevin Kühnert‘s “Young Socialists” SPD youth organisation, represent the disgruntled left wing of the party, fed up with the never-ending grand coalitions and the apparent downfall of the party, which has, in their view, resulted from a post-Hartz 4 SPD that has lost its way.

Scholz/Geywitz and Esken/Walter-Borjans started out in a group of six candidate duos. After gathering 22% and 21%, respectively, in a first ballot, they are now facing a runoff vote. As unclear as the outcome of this vote currently is, the potential consequences are looming large. A win for Nowabo and Esken might mean the premature end of the Grand Coalition and would throw Germany into a serious government crisis. Snap elections would probably be the consequence, the results of which would be very unpredictable, a success for a then renewed SPD at least highly uncertain. One party that surely would stand to gain from it is the far-right AfD, which has been able to make significant gains in recent state elections. The Greens would likely make it above 20% and become the CDU/CSU’s new junior coalition partner in a first federal “black-green” government. This would finally allow the SPD to become the opposition leader it wanted to be in the first place, two years ago – but whether this should be the goal now may also be questionable.

The alternative, a prolongation of the status quo, carries its own risks – those which were accepted by entering the Grand Coalition two years ago -, however it also holds an important chance: assuming the responsibility of government and continuing to push the agenda of social programmes, which have been initiated throughout the year. Regaining the trust of disgruntled voters through palpable results, such as the basic pension and a child allowance reform, might be the only chance the SPD has. That is, if the party can manage to convince voters that they did their job this time. In such a difficult situation some SPD members might be reminded of Herbert Achternbusch’s old adage: “You don’t stand a chance, so seize the opportunity!”

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