lessons from the SPD’s electoral victory – Robert Misik


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In his first Social Europe chronicle, Robert Misik explains how the SPD prevailed in the Bundestag elections — and what follows.

A reliable messenger, but a message many wanted to hear (Anne Czichos / shutterstock.com)

Who would have dared to predict it a few months or a few years ago: the SPD becoming the strongest party in the Bundestag elections? With just over 26% of the vote, the Social Democrats were not just 1.6 points ahead of the Christian Democrats. Compared to polls in previous years, the result was a small democratic miracle: until early summer, the SPD hit a depressing 15 percent.

How did this astonishing victory come about? What lessons can progressive and left-wing parties elsewhere draw from this? And what follows now?

Perfect campaign

First, of course, the Social Democrats won because the others lost. They had a perfect election campaign; their rivals did not.

However, it would be too simplistic to reduce electoral victory to mere professionalism. After all, what does “social democracy” mean to a large part of the electorate? They associate it with parties, political movements and an idea that is there for ordinary guys and working classes, a political force that makes sure things are right and at the same time advocates progressive and socially liberal modernization.

If the Social Democrats become more credible in this regard – frankly, if they regain some of the credibility they have lost – then they can be successful.

Olaf Scholz, the SPD candidate for chancellor, has moved moderately but notably towards the left in recent years. As finance minister, the pandemic gave him the opportunity to establish a new Keynesian narrative. Fiscal conservatism, which had long dominated German discourse, had become obsolete. The “investor state” was in demand, a state that stabilizes the economy but also makes things fairer. Globally, but also in Germany, a new economic paradigm was emerging.

Scholz and the election campaign made this new paradigm the central message. This included the demand for a higher minimum wage but just as much the demand for order in the labor markets, so that the most vulnerable and precarious parts of the working class would finally be better protected again. It was summed up in a central campaign term, ‘respect’, respect for people who are today treated disrespectfully, because they are poorly paid, because they are led and because they do not. not get the recognition they deserve.

Campaign slogans can be empty phrases, but they sometimes get to the heart of the matter and help paint a congruent picture. Large sections of the population, entire social circles, are looked down upon and unrepresented, with the feeling that in reality no one is interested in them – and that the Social Democrats too are forgetting them. The campaign was aimed at these groups, with the message “we are by your side”. It is not possible to fully regain the lost confidence in a short period of time, but a few steps forward have clearly been taken.

Strong and healthy

Second, there was the candidate. Scholz entered the election as vice-chancellor as well as finance minister, while chancellor Angela Merkel was no longer in the running. This gave the Social Democrats the opportunity to present the SPD candidate as separated from the crowd by his experience and ability to lead a government. The campaign has been fully adapted to Spitzenkandidat, a seasoned politician. He simply positioned himself as a reliable, solid and healthy craftsman of government affairs.


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This makes him the ideal candidate for the current circumstances. In a world increasingly perceived as threatening, at a time marked by Covid-19 and associated economic risks, and in the face of an impending climate catastrophe, the need for security has been a central electoral theme. When there is a lot of security and an optimistic spirit, the voters are ready to dare the novelty, then one can win with messages of modernization and radical reform. In the event of a crisis, the need for security prevails.

This brings about a paradox that will probably stay with us all for some time to come: the more radical change is demanded, the greater the need for citizens to feel secure.

Happy coincidence

The third major reason for the Social Democratic victory was coincidence. After the resignation of former SPD leader Andrea Nahles, the left wing won the competition for the party presidency. With Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Bojahns sharing the role, not only pronounced leftists have taken the reins of the party, but they are also anti-establishment figures.

These representatives of the left of the party then made Scholz, figure of the center, their candidate for chancellor. This resulted in a rather rare constellation: all the groups of the party came together around a common project and worked for its success.

Anyone familiar with party politics knows that more often than not one strand has the main candidacy while the other moans and offers only mixed support, if not actively pushing back. The SPD had seldom known such unity before – even the usual vanities and selfishness played hardly any role.

In short, there was a central message clearly oriented towards the social democratic values ​​of justice, a candidate who appealed to the great need for public safety and a party which fought in unison for victory, avoiding the “narcissism of differences. minor ”not uncommon in left circles.

Demand, not just supply

But the electoral results also show that, despite all the diagnoses of a “crisis of social democracy”, a “demand” for it comes into play when “the supply” is reasonably good. Some commentators, like Mark Schieritz in Die zeit, therefore already speak of a “social democratic decade”.

It is perhaps a little premature but, if we look further, the postulate is supported. The Social Democrats recently won elections in many European countries – they rule all over Scandinavia and the Iberian Peninsula – and Joe Biden in the White House has a lot in common with Scholz.

Biden is also at the center of his party, but he has reconciled with a strengthened left, is more to the left as president than ever as a senator and is now scoring points with classic Social Democratic messages – ” it’s time to grow the economy from the bottom and the middle “because the” trickle down “in stormy markets just hasn’t worked. People want social security and living wages and they don’t want it. be treated like numbers.

Polarized and fragmented

Certainly, unlike in previous eras, the Social Democrats do not have a planetary plan. Zeitgeist behind them. Societies are polarized and fragmented, kept them from proportional representation. There are exceptions, such as the socialists of the impressive Portuguese Prime Minister, António Costa.

The electoral victory of the German Social Democrats was also very close. Given the narrowness of the advance, government negotiations will be complicated. The most likely scenario is that the SPD could form a coalition with the Greens and the Liberal-Conservative Liberal-Conservative Party, but this is not certain at this time.

Such a coalition could easily achieve a consensual government agenda on certain issues. But on questions of economic, social and fiscal policy, the Social Democrats and the Greens on one side and the FDP on the other are poles apart.

Voters have spoken, but what they said is not at all clear and a government with a Social Democratic accent will not be easy.

This is a joint publication of Social Europe and IPS-Journal


SPD, Scholz, Social Democrats, Social Democrats, Bundestag elections

Robert Misik is a writer and essayist living in Vienna. His most recent book is Die falschen Freunde der einfachen Leute (“False Friends of Ordinary Guys”, Suhrkamp Verlag, 2019). He publishes in numerous German-language newspapers and magazines, including Die zeit and Die Tageszeitung. The awards include the John Maynard Keynes Society Economic Journalism Award.

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