The designated chairman of the German Social Democratic Party on Friday rejected calls for a radical leftward shift after an historic electoral debacle in September that sent the country’s oldest party into opposition for the first time in 11 years.
Addressing a party conference that was expected to approve a sweeping leadership reshuffle, Sigmar Gabriel pledged to keep the party “in the centre” and claimed to re-conquer “intellectual leadership” in a country now ruled by a centre-right government.
Mr Gabriel, who was environment minister in the previous government,also promised to restore a dialogue between the party leadership and its grassroots at the local level following years of strife between the SPD’s top echelons and low-level activists and a dramatic exodus of voters and members.
“We must get out there, where things are complicated, because this is where life is,” he told delegates in a nearly two-hour long energetic and passionate speech, drawing enthusiastic applause. The party conference was due to decide on Mr Gabriel’s bid on Friday night.
After a string of resignations and palace coups that saw the SPD burn through five chairmen in as many years, Mr Gabriel appeared to be “the first in a long time who is really enthusiastic about the job,” said Franz Walter, professor of political science at Göttingen University and SPD member.
Mr Gabriel could struggle to push through his moderate, pragmatic message, as suggested by a series of speeches by delegates on Friday who called for a clear break with the party’s market-friendly policies in the past decades.
After more than a decade in government, the SPD scored 23 per cent at the last general election in September – its worst score ever.