SPD back with a bang in Germany's second city


After 10 years out in the cold, the social democrats look likely to storm back to power in Hamburg, writes DEREK SCALLY

THE LOW winter sun casts long shadows around the green containers piled seven high in Hamburg harbour.

Gazing out pensively at the containers, the cranes and the massive ship from Hong Kong is Olaf Scholz, the Social Democrat (SPD) politician on course to be Hamburg’s next mayor and leader in the Bürgerschaft, the city-state’s parliament.

Ahead of Sunday’s state election, his party is polling a record 46 per cent, yet the 52-year-old trained lawyer is anything but triumphant. Instead he remains perfectly Hanseatic: polite, matter-of-fact and reserved to the point of chilly.

“It will be an encouraging signal for the SPD from Hamburg,” is the nearest thing to enthusiasm Scholz can express during a campaign break at the Eurogate container building. “If we’re successful here it’ll be good news for the SPD.”

And bad news for the CDU. A decade ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party ousted a corruption-wracked SPD from power in Germany’s second city after almost half a century of uninterrupted rule.

Now Hamburg voters have abandoned the CDU in droves, tired of its bickering coalition with the Greens and disillusioned by the decision of long-serving CDU mayor Ole von Beust to leave office to spend more time with his new boyfriend, 36 years his junior.

Like most state elections, Sunday’s Hamburg poll will be won or lost on local issues like school reform and and state investment. But it also marks the beginning of a run of seven state elections that will redraw Germany’s political map. Political scientist Ulrich von Alemann told the Handelsblatt daily he expects a “catastrophe” for the CDU on Sunday, setting the tone ahead of the crucial March poll in southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg.

Every state lost by the CDU will further erode Merkel’s authority in her party, not to mention her power in the upper house, the Bundesrat. Last year’s defeat in North Rhine-Westphalia robbed her of a law-making Bundesrat majority; now her government is reduced to horse-trading with the opposition to pass important legislation.

But perhaps the most significant aspect of Sunday’s vote can be best seen in Hamburg’s harbour, the sprawling 75m2 city within a city. At the Europort container facility, both employers and workers say they are hoping for an end to the CDU-Green coalition. For them, an SPD victory is the best chance of a green light for a €1 billion plan to expand the port for larger container ships from China.

“The politicians have been talking about it for nine years. We need action and now,” said Detlef Baade, works council head at Europort.

Hamburg is different: unlike the rest of the country, employers here are traditionally just as close to the local SPD as the unions. For decades, the SPD was the glue that held this port city together, balancing the business needs of its import-export companies with the social needs of the huge working- class population in the harbour and elsewhere. After losing its way a decade ago, a victory for Scholz on Sunday will be the local party’s reward for getting the balance right again, promising targeted investment and social spending while trimming the budget elsewhere.

A former federal labour minister in Berlin, Scholz was crucial in pushing through the short-time legislation that spared Germany an unemployment spike during the economic crisis. In Hamburg he has won over voters with his plain-speaking plans for cutting the budget deficit.

“The SPD’s always done best when we’ve managed to combine pro-business policies and social equality,” he said. “We need solid fiscal policies and a balanced budget.” Close your eyes and Scholz sounds remarkably like Gerhard Schröder, the former chancellor and centrist SPD leader disowned by the party because of his controversial economic and social reforms.

With those reforms now bearing fruit – and the party still languishing in polls at a national level – a Scholz victory is likely to energise the party’s pro-business camp. The lesson they will draw from Hamburg is easy to predict: the future of Germany’s SPD doesn’t lie on the left but firmly in the political centre. Again.