Poll agony for Germany’s Social Democrats

For a quarter of a century, Manfred Güllner has kept his finger on the pulse of German public opinion. Yet in all these years, the founder of the Forsa polling institute says he has come across nothing as curious as the current state of the country’s Social Democratic party.

Germany’s oldest party and still just the largest by membership has run or participated in governments without interruption for the past 10 years but is now “in an utterly desolate shape”, according to the veteran pollster. “It is essentially in the process of destroying itself.”

The disappearing act being performed by the 145-year-old SPD, junior partner in chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition, is one of the most perplexing features of today’s German political system. So advanced is the erosion of its popularity, a little more than a year ahead of the next general election, that members are beginning to call for an overhaul of its leadership before the year is out.

“Our leadership is poorly positioned,” says Hans-Peter Bartels, an MP since 1998. “It’s not that we don’t have good people at the top but right now they’re in competition against each other. We cannot go into an election campaign like this.”

Last week, the closely followed Politbarometer poll of the ZDF public television network shocked the country when it showed the SPD’s ratings at 21 per cent, its lowest ever. The party, which just about tied with Ms Merkel’s Christian Democrats at the last election in 2005, had come to command only half her grouping’s 42 per cent support. Then on Wednesday, results of Mr Güllner’s latest Forsa poll showed just 20 per cent support for the SPD. Among male voters, the party was backed by only 17 per cent, the same as for the liberal Free Democratic party and the radical Left party.

This, says, Mr Güllner, is “utterly unheard of”. If an election were held this weekend, only 15 to 16 per cent of registered voters would cast their ballot for the SPD, against 26 per cent at the last election. Asked what the SPD should do in such circumstances, Ludwig Stiegler, a veteran MP from Bavaria, sighs: “If only I knew.” As another senior Social Democrat puts it, “we’re in an even worse state than the French Socialists”.

To a large extent, the SDP is a victim of the transformation of Germany’s political system under the influence of the Left party. That grouping emerged in 2005 when the successor to the east German Communist party joined forces with disaffected SPD members from the west. Since then, the populist Left party has gone from strength to strength, entering several regional parliaments in the west. According to the polls it is now the biggest opposition party, ahead of the Greens and FDP, and is mainly attracting former SPD voters.

Yet there is something deeper at work too. The SPD has shed votes at every general election – and lost most regional elections – since Gerhard Schröder, the last SPD chancellor, entered office in 1998. That was years before he unveiled his programme of tough economic reforms that was the trigger for the creation of the Left party. SPD membership has halved since the early 1990s.

The root of the problem, says Mr Güllner, is strife between two strong, self-confident wings: a utopian, left-leaning wing, which is particularly strong at the grassroots and in the regions, and a pragmatic, market-friendly one, which dominates in the leadership and parliament.

“What is working against the SPD is not the Left party – it is the SPD itself,” says Karl-Rudolf Korte, political scientist at Duisburg University. “It is tearing itself apart and driving in two different directions on the fundamental question of how to deal with modernity.”

The main accusation being levelled against Kurt Beck, SPD chairman (left), is that he has failed to keep the peace between the two wings and has leant too much to the left in an attempt to win back the voters lost to the Left party. “We can only be credible as a mass party if we can appeal to 50 per cent of the voters,” says Johannes Kahrs, an MP who is part of the SPD’s conservative wing. “It is clear that the biggest pool of voters is in the centre.”

A series of questionable strategic decisions has added to the agitation over the party’s performance under Mr Beck. The latest was his decision to nominate an SPD candidate for next May’s presidential election. Many in the party think it would have been wiser to back Horst Köhler, the incumbent, for the largely ceremonial post. Mr Köhler has the support of the FDP, which a weak SPD may need to form a three-party coalition after the next general election. Mr Beck sought to repair the mistake by reaching out to the FDP in a speech last weekend but was given a strong rebuff.

Michael Spreng, a public relations expert who ran the conservatives’ electoral campaign in 2002, recently told an interviewer that “even the best communicator in Europe would fail in the task of selling Kurt Beck”.

With 15 months to go before the general election, rumours of a putsch against the chairman are rife. It may not come to that. For now, Mr Beck still enjoys the backing of Andrea Nahles, the left wing’s leader. Besides, many in the conservative wing fear that toppling him would further damage the SPD’s credibility: Mr Beck is the party’s fourth chairman in four years.

Even if confirmed in his role, it seems likely Mr Beck will have to renounce a bid to challenge Ms Merkel on election day in September 2009 and nominate one of his more popular lieutenants instead as candidate for chancellor. The most likely nominee is Frank-Walter Steinmeier, now deputy party chairman, foreign minister and vice-chancellor in the Merkel cabinet. Mr Schröder’s former chief of staff in the chancellery, he belongs to the conservative wing but his appeal is broad enough to draw together the party’s two camps. Although he has never stood for election, he is popular among voters (the ZDF poll gave him 37 per cent approval last week against 15 per cent for Mr Beck) and is the only SPD grandee to come within reach of Ms Merkel’s stellar personal ratings.

Change could also take place at the parliamentary level. Peter Struck, the current floor leader, is losing control over his backbenchers (one MP describes him as “self-destructive”) and is increasingly prone to eruptions of bad temper. At a recent press conference he grumbled that Ms Merkel’s CDU and the liberal FDP would probably win the next election.

With a new parliamentary leadership, a fresh candidate for chancellor and a chairman who keeps to the background, SPD MPs say the party would be better placed to lure voters back from the Left party. As Mr Bartels puts it: “The sooner we restructure our leadership, start working together instead of against each other and begin looking to the future instead of focusing on the Left party, the better we will do next year.”

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