Germany’s beleaguered Social Democratic Party (SPD) has fired the opening shot in the autumn 2021 federal election, nominating federal finance minister Olaf Scholz as its candidate to run for the chancellery.
Monday’s announcement, 13 months before voters choose a new government and successor to Angela Merkel, was staged as a show of unity in the SPD, which governs as the junior partner in a coalition with Dr Merkel’s CDU.
That the SPD has, for the first time since 1949, looked beyond its leader for a chancellor hopeful is an indication of the difficulties plaguing Germany’s oldest political party.
“I want to win ... this is something special and a great privilege,” said Mr Scholz, a former mayor of Hamburg. “We’re confident we can finish considerably above 20 per cent.”
The party’s decade-long identity crisis – an unresolved tension over whether it should pursue centrist and leftist policies – has seen support slump to just 15 per cent support in polls, five points down on its disastrous 2017 election outing.
Looking to next year, the SPD’s leftist leadership duo – Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken – did a series of weekend interviews flagging as their favoured coalition option an alliance with the Greens and the Left Party.
Freeing themselves of Dr Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union would come at a price: the SPD is five points behind the Greens in polls, so may once again be a junior coalition partner.
Even more significant: opening their party to the heirs of the East German regime shatters a decades-old taboo and forces Mr Scholz into an interesting political corset. He is a leading member of the party’s centrist-pragmatic camp but lost out last December in a party leadership race to the Walter-Borjans/Esken duo, who promised to take the party further left.
In office the duo have struggled to leave their mark on the party, the public or on pandemic-era politics, which favours the executive.
By contrast Mr Scholz’s profile has soared with Germany’s Covid-19 crisis measures: loosening rigid fiscal discipline to permit multibillion rescue packages at home and at EU level.
Mr Scholz said his campaign policy priorities would be fair pay, the dual challenges of climate change and digitalisation and further European integration. Asked whether he shared his party leadership’s interest in working with the Left Party, Mr Scholz said: “That depends on the others.”
The Left Party and the SPD have worked in many regional coalitions, including in Berlin’s current state government, but historical burdens and Left opposition to Nato membership and German military engagement have, to date, stood in the way of federal co-operation.
Left Party co-leader Dietmar Bartsch said his party was open to an alliance with the SPD for “a fairer republic that sends a signal against the worldwide shift to the right”.
It remains to be seen whether, three decades after German unification, voters will accept in power the political heirs to the architects of the Berlin Wall. For now, though, a more pressing political concern for Mr Scholz is whether, as federal finance minister, he will be tripped up by the lax financial oversight that contributed to the multibillion Wirecard fraud.