Andrea Nahles is the new leader of the SPD. For the first time, a woman heads the German Social Democrats.
Off to a bad start: The SPD elected Andrea Nahles as their first-ever female party leader with only 66.3 percent – and thus gave her little support for the planned renewal of the party. A special party conference on Sunday in Wiesbaden elected the 47-year-old as the first woman to lead the way in the Social Democrats’ 155-year party history – albeit with a weak result. Nahles’ little-known opponent, Flensburg’s Mayor Simone Lange, received a surprisingly strong result with 27.6 percent. This shows once again the party’s inner conflict after entering another grand coalition with the CDU.
Nahles has never been a party favorite due to her sometimes polarizing, conflict-friendly manner. Meagre election results are not something she’s unfamiliar with. But so far she has never achieved such a bad result – at a time when her challenges are greater than for no other party leader before her.
In the 2017 Bundestag elections under its then party leader Martin Schulz, the SPD sank to a low of 20.5 percent of the vote. The tough debates over participation in another grand coalition have revealed a deep split in the party.
Nahles promised a major renewal process, parallel to the government’s work in the GroKo (grand coalition). She herself deliberately did not go into government in order to sharpen the profile of the SPD at the head of the party and parliamentary group. “One can renew a party while it’s governing”, she said in Wiesbaden, “The SPD must reposition itself and make good policies for the people. Together, the Social Democrats are strong. We can do it. That is my promise.”
In her application speech, Nahles struck some very personal notes. “30 years ago I joined the SPD. The first in our family. Catholic. Worker’s child. Girl. Countryside. Need I say more?” Nahles praised the first election of a woman to the SPD leadership as historic. “Many women know this strange glass ceiling you keep coming across.” This glass ceiling in the SPD is now being broken through.
With a view to Russia, Nahles called for a stronger diplomatic offensive. In the party there is quiet displeasure about the initially very harsh tones against Russia from the new Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (SPD). With a view to eurosceptic tones from the Union, Nahles announced the implementation “letter by letter” of the European reform programme agreed in the coalition agreement.
Nahles promises an open debate about Hartz IV
As one of the goals for the coming period, she announced that she would tame digital capitalism and ask big Internet companies to pay more. On the big internal issue of Hartz IV*, she promised an open debate on reforms. The SPD should not shy away from looking at this from all angles. But she warned: “Let’s conduct the debate with the year 2020 in mind, not with the year 2010 in mind.” The left wing of the SPD is calling for alternatives to Hartz IV and the party’s unemployment policy.
Olaf Scholz, who had led the SPD provisionally until Nahles’ election, called upon the party: “We must get to work now. The SPD is now entering a new era.” He called on his party to be more self-confident. “The fact that we are confident enough to govern this country again and that we will become the strongest party again must be the goal that we are all pursuing together.”
“Nahles is and remains unpopular even in her own party.”
But the party in Wiesbaden did not present itself as particularly united. Nahles’ result is the second worst result in post-war history in an election for SPD leader. Only Oskar Lafontaine had achieved fewer votes in 1995 (62.6 percent), when he – supported by the then youth organisation leader Nahles – overthrew the chairman Rudolf Scharping. The vote in Wiesbaden was only the second highly contested candidacy for SPD chairmanship after 1995.
The parliamentary group leader of The Left Sahra Wagenknecht put her finger in the wound. “Nahles is and remains unpopular even within her own party,” Wagenknecht said. “Apparently even many SPD delegates do not associate Nahles with a new beginning or an urgently needed social change.”
*a major reform programme of the German umemployment benefit system by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder