epa06224168 A red balloon reading 'Schulz 2017' lies on the ground during the Social Democratic Party (SPD) election event in Berlin, Germany, 24 September 2017. According to federal election commissioner more than 61 million people are eligible to vote in the elections for a new federal parliament, the Bundestag, in Germany. EPA/FELIPE TRUEBA
The SPD feels it now has the chance to break away and return to the party's roots © EPA

The leaders of Germany’s humbled Social Democrats vowed to rebuild the party in opposition after its historic defeat in Sunday’s election.

The SPD won just 20.5 per cent of the vote, more than 5 percentage points down from 2013 and the party’s worst result in the 19 general elections since the creation of the federal republic.

Despite the stinging defeat, there was a palpable sense of relief at the SPD headquarters on Sunday night, as party loyalists hailed the chance to confront Angela Merkel head-on after four years in a coalition government.

Martin Schulz, who pledged to continue as SPD leader, was greeted with cheers and applause, as was his assurance that “tonight our co-operation with the [conservative bloc of] CDU and CSU ends”.

He renewed his vow on Monday, telling a press conference in Berlin: “It is clear that Germans did not want a continuation of the grand coalition . . . Our job is in opposition.”

For now, the party appears ready to stand by its chief. “He has only been leader since March and should absolutely continue to lead the party now,” said Michael Czogalla, a rank-and-file SPD member who was attending the party’s election night gathering at its offices on Sunday. Echoing the broader mood, he urged the party to reconnect with its leftwing base. “We moved so far to the centre that we lost voters on the left,” said Mr Czogalla.

SPD leaders had long feared that the party’s role as junior partner in Ms Merkel’s government would extract a heavy price at the ballot box. The four-year entanglement was one reason the party settled on a relative outsider as its candidate. Mr Schulz is a former president of the European Parliament who played no role in the Merkel government and was largely untouched by German domestic politics until this year. 

For Mr Schulz personally, the result marks a bitter reversal from the euphoria that greeted his nomination as SPD leader. His party’s poll ratings had surged in the weeks that followed, putting the Social Democrats within striking distance of Ms Merkel for the first time in years. 

But Mr Schulz went on to preside over a string of regional election setbacks for his party, including a defeat in populous North Rhine-Westphalia, a former bastion of SPD support. From a February high of 33 per cent, the party’s poll ratings fell steadily towards the low 20s, culminating in the historic low on Sunday.

The travails of Germany’s Social Democrats mirror those of other centre-left parties in Europe, which have seen swaths of their traditional working class support fall away in recent years while also coming under attack from rival leftwing and far-left movements.

In the case of the SPD, the strategic bind has been especially acute because of its role as Ms Merkel’s junior coalition partner since 2013. Over the course of the campaign, Mr Schulz struggled repeatedly to draw a clear distinction between the two parties — and at times seemed reluctant to launch an all-out attack on the veteran chancellor. 

Karl-Rudolf Korte, a professor of politics at Duisburg-Essen university, said the party’s fundamental problem was that “no one can really say what objective the SPD has”.

“They are proposing small tweaks to the system, but no real fundamental changes. Merkel could do most of the things they are suggesting,” he added.

Gero Neugebauer, politics professor at the Free University in Berlin, said: “Schulz’s campaign was too watered-down — he basically said, ‘I won’t do anything differently, just better’. He should have come up with a concept that said, ‘We are the alternative’.”

On Sunday night there was a growing conviction that this could finally change. Franz-Josef Hansen, a childhood friend of Mr Schulz from his home town of Würselen, said: “As an opposition party, the SPD will have the chance to dedicate itself once again to core Social Democratic issues. The party has to go back to its roots.”

The SPD leader, he argued, simply had not had enough time to give the party a new profile. Like other supporters, Mr Hansen said there was no reason to question Mr Schulz’s leadership now. “I used to play football with Martin and I can tell you, he was never the best technician but he was a fighter and a hard worker. He is capable of learning and he can accept criticism. He will pick himself up, dust himself down and find new strength.” 

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