Manuela Schwesig: leading the SPD fight-back in the east

Manuela Schwesig, SPD Minister President of the east German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern,  who is charged with spearheading  the mammoth task of reversing the SPD’s collapse in the east of the country, is like Franziska Giffey, one of the SPD’s ‘hope-bearers.’

Foto: Thomas Fries / Lizenz: cc-by-sa-3.0 de

Following the resignation of leader Andrea Nahes in June 2019, Schwesig was appointed as one of three provisional party leaders until the leadership election of December 2019 (which saw the election of Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken). 

However, in September 2019 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and resigned from her federal responsibilities, while remaining Minister President of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.   Despite her  cancer treatment,  she continued to work, and when the corona pandemic hit her state, Schwesig was present as a crisis manager.  In May 2020, she announced that she had overcome the illness and has returned to work. Thankful for the support she received from colleagues and the public  during her illness, Schwesig said “I have learned that society is often much more human than we think.” 

Schwesig is the first female Minister President of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where she is leading an SPD/CDU coalition government.   Like Andrea Nahles, the first female leader of the SPD, she has often been criticised in ways men are not.  Schwesig’s manner has been described as strict and controlling, and hard with  colleagues.   She has been  ridiculed as too blonde, too young, not an academic, a bad speaker, too ambitious and  just a ‘quota-woman‘  She was given the nickname ‘Küstenbarbie‘ (Barbie from the coast), a nickname which was used within the SPD as well as out of it. As the Morgenpost newspaper comments, she was discriminated against in multiple ways: blond, east German, woman. 

Schwesig’s rise has been swift.  A former  tax adviser for the state, she joined the SPD in 2003.  She was elected as a city councillor in  Schwerin in 2004, where she became leader of the SPD group;  in 2008 she became a minister in the state parliament of  Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and was directly elected to the state parliament in 2011.   

In 2013, she was made Federal Minister for Families, a position she gave up in  June 2017.  In a move that was unexpected and sudden, she left to become Minister President of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern after the previous incumbent, her political mentor, fell ill. 

In her career, Schweisg has made her mark on issues focusing on women and family.  In her time as Minister for Families, she fought  for better opportunities for women professionally, introducing a bill making quotas for women on company boards mandatory, promoting expansion of childcare and expanding maternity legislation.   As taz wrote, Schwesig’s “balance sheet of the past four years as family minister reads like a compendium of gender studies: quotas for women, extended maintenance payments, a protection of prostitutes law, transparency in salaries, increased parental allowance, ‘no means no’ in sexual criminal law. Everything poured into laws…..Finally, a minister for women who is serious about gender equality policy, human rights and family associations as well as non-governmental organizations say. ”    However, the Spiegel argued that Schwesig “brought family and women’s policy issues – better work-life balance, the women’s quota – into the public eye and thus attracted attention. In fact, however, it has mostly not achieved more than minimal compromises, if at all, with regard to legal innovations….Nevertheless, Schwesig takes on the role of a stubborn fighter for the cause of women.”

In June 2020 she announced she will be introducing legislation in the Bundesrat  to ensure that child abuse will be punished more severely in the future.  

After the election, Schwesig co-chaired  the committee responsible for overhauling the party’s welfare policy. The  document  –  ‘Ein neuer Sozialstaat für eine neue Zeit – A new welfare state for a new age –   addressed the controversial Hartz IV welfare reforms, which were responsible for causing a split in the party under Gerhard Schroder and which are still controversial today.  The document’s proposals  would keep claimants out of the system for longer  and reduce the much-hated sanctions.

This was particularly calculated to appeal to voters in the east of the country, where the SPD won only 13.9% of the vote in 2017.   In the eastern states, the party has been pushed into fourth place by  the far-right the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which came second in 2017 with 21.9%, and by the Left party  (Die Linke), which came third with 13.8%.  Schwesig has warned of  the risk that the AfD will become the new ‘people’s party‘: the future of the SPD, she argued, will be decided in the east. 

Writing about her move back to Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in 2017, the Spiegel wrote that, “It doesn’t sound like a career move. (But) the change is actually a nice thing for Schwesig.”  The reason, wrote the Spiegel, is the advantage of gaining experience as head of a government before launching back into national politics.   Indeed, by 2018, the Zeit noted that, “She is something of an informal SPD prime minister all over the East without being noticed by the outside world.” 

Before her cancer diagnosis Schwesig was leading an east German grouping within the party which is determined to reverse the party’s fortunes in the east: ’Operation East’. Schwesig argued that there is too often  a west German perspective in politics and that a big issue for east German citizens is that they finally achieve German unification, given the divisions which still remain between western and eastern states. She hoped that the SPD policies of a higher minumum wage and an alignment of pensions in east will show east Germans that they are no longer second class citizens.

Currently, it is not looking good for the SPD,  which  is polling at around 15-16% nationally.     In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the party is stronger, but losing support. An Infratest dimap poll in June found that  CDU has overtaken the SPD: the CDU are polling at 29%, 10 points higher than in the last state election in 2016 (reflecting the current corona pandemic surge in support for the CDU).   The SPD is on 24%, 6 points lower than in 2016, and the AfD have lost 6 parentage points, coming third with 15%.

However, Schwesig’s personal ratings are strong: 70 percent of voters are satisfied or even very satisfied with her. It remains to be seen whether she can reverse her party’s fortunes in the state before the autumn 2021 election.

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