At the end of 2019, following the departure of its first ever female leader, Andrea Nahles, the SPD elected a new leadership duo. In a surprise result, little known left-wingers Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans defeated the favourites, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz and his running-partner Klara Geywitz by 53% to 45%.
The election of Esken and Walter-Borjans represented a grassroots revolt against centrist party heavyweights and initially caused alarm in Berlin: during the campaign, the pair had repeatedly signalled their willingness to leave the governing coalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU, which would have resulted in a minority government or another election.
Since the 2017 election, when the SPD sank to a new low of 20.5%, the party has been comprehensively outstripped by the re-energised Green Party. It is is currently polling at around 13 – 15% (fighting the far-right populists, the AfD, for third place), while the Greens are in second place, consistently polling over 20%. In parts of the east, the SPD has collapsed: in state elections of the autumn of 2019, it won only 8.2% in Thuringia and 7.7% in Saxony.
The main problem for the SPD, as a party analysis of the 2017 defeat found, is that it lacks a clear identity. In contrast to the Green Party – which has positioned itself as unambiguously open and progressive – the SPD has struggled to find its place in a changing political landscape.
A furious post-election debate about whether it is even possible to renew the party while in coalition never died down, even after the party voted in favour in January 2018. A grassroots No GroKo (No to the Grand Coalition) campaign mobilised around a third of the members and discontent about being in the coalition continued throughout 2018 and 2019.
Andrea Nahles, who was elected as leader in April 2018, had been one of the most powerful voices in favour of coalition. She promised a renewal process, but never managed to solidify her support within the party. Following months of exhausting battles with colleagues, poor European election results in which the party won less than 16% of the vote, and the loss of Bremen, which the party had controlled for over 70 years, she resigned in June 2019.
Despite their campaign threats to pull out of the coalition, after their election Esken and Walter-Borjans stopped short of demanding withdrawal from the coalition, arguing instead that the coalition agreement drawn up in February 2018 should be renegotiated. At a party conference in December called to confirm their election, delegates voted against withdrawal.
In fact, the SPD has won some significant battles in the coalition, with protection of employment rights and pension reforms counted amongst their key achievements.
Neither Esken nor Walter-Borjans had a very high profile before their election, although Walter-Borjans, former finance minister of North-Rhine Westphalia was known there as the ‘Robin Hood for taxpayers.’ He spent 19 million euros to obtain information on clients of Swiss banks who were not paying enough tax, and managed to recoup billions of euros in taxes. Saskia Esken is from Baden-Württemberg, in the south west of Germany, and specializes in digital policy, which was one of the main focuses of Nahles’s renewal programme.
Apart from their fierce criticism of the coalition, the pair have opposed the continuation of the controversial Hartz IV welfare reforms, which were introduced in 2003 by SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and which contributed to a split in the party. Since then, the left of the party has consistently agued that the reforms should be abolished. Esken and Walter-Borjans have also criticised the Black Zero policy of a balanced budget. The Black Zero was introduced by CDU Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, and continued by Olaf Scholz; this is one of the reasons Scholz is not popular with left of the party since it limits the amount that can be spent at a time when there are billions of euros of investment needs around the country.
Yet there is little clarity about what vision the new leaders have for the direction of the party. So far they have failed to make their mark. The SPD’s polling figures remain low, as does faith in the ability of Esken and Walter-Borjans to lead the party to a successful future.