Franziska Giffey: SPD hope-bearer

Franziska Giffey, the coalition government’s SPD Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, has risen through the party ranks quickly and is now not only being talked of as the next Mayor of Berlin, but also as a possible SPD Chancellor candidate one day. As the newspaper taz wrote, “Giffey’s almost meteoric rise is parallel to the decline of the SPD. The party does not currently have many hope-bearers. But Giffey has shown how to rise to the top.”

Down-to-earth, friendly, charming, practical, hard-working and with a propensity for one-liners, Giffey’s popularity is a constant theme of warm media articles about her – surprisingly, for a politician. She pursues a moderate political course, but is accepted by all wings of her party. Controversy in her personal life has not harmed her; she has won praise for how she has handled her troubles.

Giffey comes from Brandenburg and studied in Berlin, where she gained an MA in public administration followed by a PhD in political science. She joined the SPD in 2007 and became a councillor in the Berlin-Neukölln district in 2010. In 2015, she became Mayor of Berlin-Neukölln, a position she held until 2018, when she was appointed Minister for Family Affairs in the Federal Cabinet. That certainly is a meteoric rise.

As Minister, and as a councillor in Berlin, Giffey has been very engaged with a series of issue involving women and families, including calling for stronger action against child abusers, action to end to female genital mutilation, advocating compulsory kindergarten for children from the age of three and focusing on policies to help immigrant children integrate.

In July, she managed to accomplish agreement on a strategy which had been years in the making and which encountered strong opposition from some other government departments – a cross-departmental, federal strategy to achieve equality between men and women, called ‘Strong for the Future.’ In the future, equality must be given greater consideration in all federal laws and funding programs: Giffey’s template for this, reports the Zeit, aims to promote what the constitution prescribes, namely to promote the “effective enforcement” of equality between women and men.

Photo: SPD Berlin/ Joachim Gern , CC BY 4.0

A main goal of Giffey’s strategy is achieving equal pay. She pointed out that the current wage gap of more than 20% between women and men leads to pension gap of more than 50%. The strategy also aims to strengthen the compatibility of family, care and work, as well as promote equal career opportunities and equal participation of women and men in management positions (women in Germany are underrepresented in management positions, particularly well-paid ones and the proportion of women in companies is still decreasing the more important the position becomes.) Social professions will also be strengthened as attractive and flexible careers.

This strategy was well-received in the media, with one reservation. A requirement for companies to bring more women into management positions existed already. However, Giffey’s strategy did not introduce a legal requirement for how high the targets companies have to set should be, meaning that companies can set themselves a target of zero.

In her time in Neukölln, Giffey was known for her work combatting poverty and helping the integration of immigrants: she campaigned for free school lunches and for expanding all-day care, strengthened the police presence in the district and installed security guards in schools. She highlighted the topic of immigration from south-east Europe to Germany, especially to Berlin-Neukölln and campaigned for the establishment of ‘welcome classes’ (classes to integrate immigrants into the school system) and holiday schools for immigrant children to receive German lessons. In 2018, she endorsed the purchase of Burkinis to promote the participation of Muslim schoolchildren in swimming lessons.

Giffey, according to taz, is focused on opportunities for all: “Offering a future to all children” is still on her website today. That is what also shapes her policy as Federal Minister: family policy. Feminism? It’s not her thing. Positions that could be considered radical are certainly not. Giffey does not rely on maximum demands and confrontation, but on compromise and cooperation.”

She has the reputation of being engaged, active and enthusiastic. The Süddeustche Zeitung wrote “For her, politics essentially means: recognising the problem, going there, talking, solving the problem. Even when she found herself, surprisingly, in the Federal Cabinet in 2018, she tried to maintain this approach with countless on-site visits.” The Welt commented that Giffey is “considered the queen of the on-site visit, she tirelessly travels through the country.” The Zeit said that, “Franziska Giffey is one of the very few in politics who can get so excited that it is contagious. It doesn’t matter whether she is excited about a political project, her homeland, her party or just excited about her own excitement. For the gloomy, depressed crowd of the Berlin SPD, this mix of passion, optimism and good humor, which is now reaching the top in the form of the 41-year-old native of Brandenburg, is the only chance to stay in power after the state election in autumn 2021. A godsend with an updo.”

This last comment refers to the fact that Giffey will probably be the candidate to succeed Berlin’s current mayor Michael Müller in the next Berlin state election in the autumn of 2021. Müller is expected to declare that he will run for a seat for the Bundestag in next year’s election. Giffey is expected to become the new joint SPD leader in Berlin, together with the SPD parliamentary leader Raed Saleh, and then should be nominated as the lead candidate for the SPD for the 2021 Berlin election.

The leadership question in the Berlin SPD has been a long-running one, with Müller refusing for a long time to make clear whether he will step aside. The background to the protracted internal party debates about leadership is the difficult position the SPD, which has governed Berlin together with the Left Party and Greens since 2016, finds itself in.

In the 2016 Berlin state election, the SPD won 21.6% of the vote. However, according to the polls, the SPD is currently not set to be the largest party in the election next year – far from it. An Insa poll in July put the party in fourth place with 16%. The CDU was in first place, with 21%, followed by the Greens with 19% and the Left Party with 18%. Institut Civey in April put the Berlin SPD in third place with 17 % percent, the CDU on 23.5%, followed by the Greens with 21% percent and the Left Party on 16%. These polling numbers would make a CDU-led coalition the most likely result of the election.

Not only is Giffey seen as the candidate acceptable to all wings of the SPD, she is expected to appeal to voters across different political spectrums (unlike Müller, who, commented the Welt, “is charming and honest in his personal dealings, but considered (by voters) to be grumpy and colourless.”)

The Tagesspiegel commented in July that, “All hopes rest on her, even the powerful party left wing has for the time made peace with the popular SPD woman,” and the Berliner Morgenpost that, “The hype surrounding Giffey shows once again how dependent the SPD is on its hope. She has long appeared to many as the only one that can lead it from its valley of misery.” The Zeit wrote, “Giffey has been treated as a miracle cure by the Social Democrats for a long time, a cure which can alleviate all the suffering of the SPD. The party needs a new chair? Everything will be fine with Giffey. How do we drive away the blues of futility? With three doses of Giffey a day. Who will save the Berlin SPD? Well, the woman who was mayor of Neukölln”

Favourite phrases of Giffey, noted the Süddeustche Zeitung, include, “If you don’t want anything, you won’t get anything.” “Doing is like wanting, just more blatant, ” or “We have to be better organised than organised crime.” This last is particularly important, since she is known as being a law-and-order politician. While this would exclude other politicians from being accepted by the left-wing of the SPD in Berlin, Giffey’s, “popularity outshines a lot.” The Welt also pointed out that, “the notoriously left (Berlin SPD) will certainly have to accept some sacrifices…..She wants to do politics for people who work hard and perform well. And she is firmly convinced that the SPD can only win with a path of middle and reason. “The issues of safety and order are important to me, they are social democratic issues,” she says.”

Giffey has been involved in two controversies in the last year: an investigation in 2019 by the Free University Berlin as to whether her doctorate was plagiarised; and allegations of fraud against her husband this year, in which he was accused of falsifying time sheets as well as falsely claiming expenses. In 2019, when under investigation about her PhD, Giffey announced that she would not stand in the December 2019 SPD national leadership elections and that she would resign if found guilty of plagiarism. After an investigation, she was allowed to keep her PhD, although she was not completely exonerated either.

However, her popularity is such that even these things do not appear to have harmed her – taz concluded, “she survived her crises with restraint and honesty…. her approach (to the PhD affair) ultimately gave her credibility. And the affair about her husband, has not seemed to harm her, at least so far.”

The Zeit asked the question of why Giffey, who has reached the position of Federal Minister, would want to go back to state politics: “Why does the woman of a thousand options descend from the federal to the state stage?”

The answer, the paper argues, is twofold: firstly, no-one expects the SPD to be in government after the federal election next year, given the party’s poll ratings, so Giffey will lose her ministerial position; secondly, “very often and very happily she says: ‘make a difference’ ….. Anyone who has to make a permanent difference is unsuitable for the opposition.” So if Giffey wants to continue to make a difference, she will need to be in power.

Above all, leaving federal politics for state politics at the current time will not damage her chances for the future: “An SPD Chancellor candidate can only lose in 2021, as it seems at the moment. An SPD chancellor candidate who can show in 2025 that she has got the problems of the capital under control does not have to.”

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