Germany’s SPD begins break from Merkel era for election campaign

Party is struggling for relevance and has slipped to third in polls behind the Greens

Olaf Scholz: during an online party conference on Sunday, some 96.5% of SPD delegates backed the centrist as their leader candidate. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/Pool/EPA

Germany’s centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has begun to distance itself from the Angela Merkel era, attacking the chancellor’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its three-time grand coalition partner, as “politically burned-out”.

During an online party conference on Sunday, some 96.5 per cent of SPD delegates backed the centrist Olaf Scholz as their leader candidate. He in turn presented a 48-page election manifesto with two main pillars: a leftist pitch to win back disillusioned ex-SPD working-class voters, and the promise of more dynamic “renewal and progress” politics – at home and in Europe – than during the 16-year Merkel era.

“I want a government that actually wants something, that implements ideas and doesn’t just procrastinate, hesitate, dilute, prevent,” said Mr Scholz, finance minister in Dr Merkel’s cabinet. “Social and democratic politics can do more.”

After three terms since 2005 as Dr Merkel’s junior grand coalition partner, the SPD is struggling for political relevance and has slipped to third place in polls behind the Greens.


Despite just 16 per cent poll support on good days, down almost five points on its historic election disaster in 2017, the SPD united behind Mr Scholz on Sunday for what a leading official called a four-month “race to catch up”.

Among its key election promises is a vow to increase Germany’s minimum wage from €9.50 to €12 an hour, benefiting some 10 million low-paid workers and reducing the 16 per cent of the population said to be living below the poverty line.

Covid-hit economy

If returned to power, the party vows to retool controversial jobless policies that have haunted the party for 20 years and to push big-state spending – on schools and transport – to prop up the Covid-hit economy and modernise decrepit architecture.

Mr Scholz and his SPD-led finance ministry were key in pandemic-related emergency payments, shifting Germany away from years of balanced public finances and even a budget surplus.

To finance his spending plans, the centre-left candidate is proposing higher taxes for the upper 5 per cent of earners and a wealth tax of 1 per cent, with lower earners spared tax increases.

With an eye on Germany’s growing housing crisis, the SPD hopes to lure voters with its proposal for inflation-linked rent control plans and more ambitious plans for new social housing.

With Germany’s Greens leading in some polls, and green politics capturing the political zeitgeist, the SPD is hoping to differentiate itself in a crowded political field by promising an ecological transformation that is also socially just.

It is pushing for 100 per cent renewable energy by 2040, and by 2030 a greenhouse gas saving of 65 per cent compared with 1990, but with a reduced eco-surcharge on German electricity bills.

In their speeches, other SPD officials expressed hope of closing a seven-point gap to the CDU. Without a dramatic about-turn, however, SPD officials admit their most realistic chance of retaining power next September is as junior partner to the Greens.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin