It took Andrea Nahles just seven minutes to take charge of Germany’s Social Democrats.
The moment came halfway through the SPD’s last conference, when the leader of its parliamentary group rose to do the job that Martin Schulz, her party chief, could not: persuade 600 delegates that there was no alternative to a grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc, however unpopular such an alliance might be.
Grim-faced and hoarse, Ms Nahles argued, pleaded, mocked and cursed her way through an improvised address that swung the vote in favour of a coalition. “Without her we would not have made it. The speech turned everything around,” says Niels Annen, a SPD member of parliament from Hamburg.
Mr Schulz resigned as party leader a few weeks later, leaving Ms Nahles in command of a party traumatised by months of infighting and chaos and two decades of electoral decline. She has been criss-crossing Germany ever since, trying to persuade the SPD’s 460,000 members to support the draft coalition deal in an internal party referendum.
The result, due this Sunday, will be decisive for country and party alike. If the SPD base backs her course, Ms Nahles will be praised for helping to break the political deadlock and sparing her party a difficult early election. If members reject her wishes and the grand coalition, Germany will be heading for new elections — and the SPD for potentially monumental defeat at the ballot box, with recent polls giving the party less than 20 per cent of the vote.
SPD insiders say the combative Ms Nahles is better placed than most to win her party around. The 47-year-old daughter of a bricklayer has been with the SPD since her teenage years, when she set up a branch of the party youth wing — the Jungsozialisten or Jusos — in her village in the Eifel, a backwater on the western German border. She went on to lead the Jusos at national level, imposing herself on a movement notorious for factional divisions.
Once a leading voice on the SPD’s left, Ms Nahles has moved steadily towards the centre. As labour minister in the last grand coalition, she pushed through Germany’s first minimum wage as well as generous pension hikes, winning plaudits from political friends and foes alike. Ms Merkel is said to get on well with Ms Nahles. Horst Seehofer, the leader of the arch-conservative Christian Social Union, praised her as a “very good minister”.
“Already in her time at the Jusos, Andrea Nahles was someone who tried to bring together the different wings of the movement. She was a mediator. And that is the role she is playing for the SPD now,” says Benjamin Mikfeld, who took over from Ms Nahles as Juso chief and is now head of policy in the German labour ministry.
Andrea Nahles was born in 1970 and grew up in the village of Weiler in Rhineland Palatinate
Studied German literature and political sciences in Bonn. Her final paper analysed the “Function of catastrophes in serial love stories”
Joined Social Democratic party as teenager, and set up a branch of SPD youth wing in her home village
Served as national head of Jungsozialisten, the SPD youth wing, from 1995-99
Became an MP in 1998. Served as SPD general secretary and labour minister before being appointed last year as head of party’s group in German parliament
Outside the party, however, Ms Nahles is known less as a crafty mediator than as a provocative and occasionally boorish orator, who cuts down even colleagues and rivals with whom she has collaborated. Speaking after her final cabinet meeting as a minister under Ms Merkel last year, Ms Nahles announced cheerfully in the direction of her conservative cabinet colleagues: “Ab morgen kriegen sie in die Fresse” — “From tomorrow, they get it in the gob.” She has dismissed fellow ministers as “stupid”.
To her supporters inside the party, Ms Nahles’ idiosyncratic style is a sign of a rare political asset: authenticity. “Voters are turned off by the way politicians speak. They don’t listen. That is why her way of speaking is such a strength,” says Mr Annen. “Andrea is someone who has kept her rough edges.”
If her nomination is confirmed at a party congress in April, Ms Nahles will be the SPD’s first female leader in its 154-year history. She will not join the cabinet but will have formidable powers as the party’s chief and leader in parliament. Olaf Scholz, the SPD mayor of Hamburg and a long-time ally, is tipped to become finance minister and deputy chancellor: Ms Nahles will be able to concentrate on ensuring that the SPD keeps a distinct profile despite being locked into a grand coalition with Ms Merkel.
Those who know Ms Nahles well describe her as accessible and friendly. She still lives in the tiny village of Weiler, where she was born and now raises her 7-year old daughter. A devout Roman Catholic, Ms Nahles attends Sunday mass in the village regularly.
“Andrea Nahles has always kept her feet on the ground. She grew up here, and she comes back whenever she can,” says Hermann-Josef Thelen, the mayor of Weiler. “She can be a bit cheeky at times but she always says what she thinks. And she is quite impulsive.”
Ms Nahles has made clear she intends to lead the SPD whether its members support the coalition deal or nor. She knows she has inherited a mess: some recent polls suggest the party has fallen behind the far-right Alternative for Germany. Nor are Ms Nahles’ ratings spectacular. A poll for the RTL channel this week found that only 14 per cent of German voters would back her to be chancellor, against 48 per cent for Ms Merkel.
Ms Nahles has shown in the past that she can play a long game. Three decades ago, her high school yearbook asked students to reveal their career goals. With a customary mix of Eifel earthiness and soaring ambition, Ms Nahles wrote: “Housewife or chancellor.”
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