Public Affairs & Government Relations

The SPD in the 2021 Federal Elections – A Toothless Tiger?

The Social Democrats (SPD) positioned themselves early on in the 2021 federal election year. Olaf Scholz has been their designated candidate for chancellor since the summer of 2020, and in March, six months before the election date, they presented their draft election program. At the weekend, the party delegates confirmed their candidate Scholz as well as the program at a largely virtual party conference, which ran under the headline “Out of respect for your future”. However, no effort and no enthusiasm can cover up that there is still a lot of room for improvement for the SPD. According to current public-opinion polls, the Social Democrats are at just 14 percent, long outpaced by the Greens at 26 percent and the Conservatives (CDU/CSU) at 23 percent[1]. Also, in public debates, the SPD is being side-lined and grounded between Greens and the Union. Of course, there was no word of that at the party conference. Instead, party leadership and most notably Olaf Scholz managed to gloss over the precarious situation with optimism and confidence.

Out of Bare Necessity

Around 600 delegates attended the conference online, only the party leadership gathered live in Berlin. The agenda for the big day was short and held no surprises: Celebration of the election program and Olaf Scholz as candidate for chancellor, followed by somewhat wishful thinking about a shiny German future in post-Covid times. Both program and candidate are no news, and if we all have learnt one thing, it is that this pandemic is unpredictable and maybe the SPD should not plan too far.

So, why hold another party conference? Why fuss about confirming programs and candidates one has decided on many moons ago? The answer is reassurance. The conference, it seems, had first and foremost the purpose to reassure the party base of their leadership’s commitment to winning a place in the future government. The SPD’s approval ratings have been alarmingly low for months, and whilst other parties regularly appear on the front pages of the major dailies, the SPD have almost disappeared from public debate. This Sunday was crucial in uniting a struggling SPD behind their chancellor candidate and take them up on their promise to stand behind him in the campaign.

Ballot Box Agenda

The overall mood within the SPD is better than the recent approval ratings might suggest. It seems that the public fight within the coalition partner CDU/CSU over the choice of their candidate for chancellor has revived the SPD’s spirits. Whilst the CDU/CSU is still stuck in internal debates, the SPD is already fathoming its future options for power. At the party conference, SPD Secretary General Lars Klingbeil teased: “This Union [of CDU/CSU] is broken, and it is empty in terms of content, and it would be good for Germany if the Conservatives no longer bear responsibility”. “Today is day one of our catch-up for the federal election”, he added and by that indirectly admitted that the SPD was late to the game. Indeed, for months, Scholz had no one to compete against. Then, in mid-April, Armin Laschet (CDU) and Annalena Baerbock (Greens) were announced candidates for chancellor. Whilst they took off straight away with campaigning, it took Scholz until this weekend to get up to speed. Now Scholz finds himself uncomfortably sandwiched between his competitors who receive a great deal of attention. In an attempt to struggle free, Scholz used his conference speech to indirectly lash out at Baerbock. Good ideas were not enough for the powerful job of chancellor, but a chancellor needed experience and the ability to carry through with ideas – like him.

Scholz has never been a rousing speaker, and certainly not on Sunday without an audience vis-à-vis. But he came across self-confident, despite the SPD approval ratings of only 14 percent: “I am applying for the office of Chancellor, because I know I can do it.” In his speech, Scholz painted a picture of a more cohesive society in which people meet as equals and trust each other again. Under his competent leadership with a social conscience, the future guiding principle for Germany would be respect.

To tackle the major changes of our century lying ahead, Scholz promised world-class broadband for everyone, a healthcare system with citizens’ insurance, a minimum wage of twelve euros per hour and the construction of 100,000 social housing units per year. If he becomes chancellor, citizens should measure him against this.

Scholz draws his optimism from his conviction that his party has presented an excellent election program which is based on four missions for the future: Combating climate change, modernize mobility, speed up digitization and optimize the healthcare system. In sum, the focus is on expanding the welfare state and climate policy. Both are strong evidence for more left oriented party politics.

The SPD’s election program is significantly shorter than in the past, comprising not even 50 pages. The delegates also sent in far fewer amendments than usual. Within the party, this is seen as a sign of unity. However, it is noticeable that passages on controversial topics such as foreign or security policy, for example, are unusually brief and avoid specific projects, such as those on the German Armed Forces. Also, the part on climate protection already needs updating as the Federal Constitutional Court had ordered the German government to revise its climate protection law earlier this month.

The Principle of Hope

Scholz believes that the voters will recognize the value of his election program and cast their vote for the Social Democrats in September. During his party conference speech, Scholz transformed into a motivation trainer swearing in his team at half time break.

But has he been able to push the party into gear? To the common spectator, the immediate effects are non-existent. Only the coming weeks will show if Scholz was able to blandish his followers and turn around his critics. His message has been received: No one can do it but the SPD – forget about the surveys. And clearly, without him, the SPD would be in an even worse position. But now Scholz must switch to election campaign mode. He has got around 140 days left to win voters over. In this, securing the backing of his party was an important step. With 96.2 percent approval, the delegates at the party conference not only confirmed Scholz as their candidate for chancellor but also the old saw Hope dies last.

Who is Olaf Scholz?

Time to look more closely at the man Olaf Scholz himself. For years, Scholz has been considered one of Germany’s brightest political minds. The long-time First Mayor of Hamburg is currently Minister of Finance and Vice Chancellor in the Grand Coalition next to Chancellor Angela Merkel – and now officially the SPD’s candidate for chancellor in the 2021 federal election.

Scholz, 62, grew up in Hamburg and is married to Britta Ernst (SPD), Minister of Education in the state of Brandenburg. He studied law, served as the Young Socialists’ vice president in the eighties and was promoted to the party executive in 1994. In 1998, Scholz was elected to the Bundestag, and two years later became SPD state leader in Hamburg for the first time.

In the early 2000s, as party secretary-general under Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Scholz earned the nickname “Scholzomat” for his polished but often unexcited public statements. In 2007, Scholz became Minister of Labor in Merkel’s first Grand Coalition at federal level, then Mayor of Hamburg four years later. His record in Hamburg is impressive and yet stained by the violent riots around the G20 summit which Scholz hosted in 2017. In retrospective, these events turned out to be an important steppingstone in Scholz’s strong relationship with Chancellor Merkel who demonstrated her support. The chancellor, known for her calm and thoughtful manner, clearly appreciates the sober Hanseatic Scholz.

But by that time Scholz had made a name for himself. As the architect of the reorganization of federal-state finances agreed on in summer 2017 and as the SPD’s lead negotiator in the coalition wrangling over taxes and finances, he proved himself to be an adept negotiator.

In August 2019, he ran as a duo with Klara Geywitz for the SPD party lead. In a runoff election in November 2019, however, the two were defeated by the duo of Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken who represent the left wing of SPD. In August 2020, however, it is them who propose Scholz as a candidate for chancellor in the 2021 federal election. It is very much reasonable given that during the Covid crisis, Scholz has become the third most popular politician behind Angela Merkel and CSU-leader Markus Soeder – despite his alleged role in previous scandals surrounding Wirecard and Cum-Ex.

And Scholz can stand his ground. At a federal-state conference in March, a frustrated Bavarian State Premier Soeder is said to have exclaimed: “You’re not the king of Germany or ruler of the world […] Stop grinning this smurfily!”. One day later Scholz commented with humor: “I enjoyed the Smurfs comment. They are small, cunning and always win!”

[1] ARD-DeutschlandTrend 06.05.2021


The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting, Inc., its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals.

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