Germany’s SPD party elects its first woman leader in 155 years

One-third of SPD delegates decline to back candidacy of Andrea Nahles for leader

  Andrea Nahles  after she was elected SPD  leader in Wiesbaden, Germany.  Photograph: EPA/Clemens Bilan

Andrea Nahles after she was elected SPD leader in Wiesbaden, Germany. Photograph: EPA/Clemens Bilan


Germany’s oldest political party, the Social Democrats (SPD), made history on Sunday by electing its first woman leader in 155 years, Andrea Nahles (47). However, her hopes of renewing her struggling party, down to just 18 per cent in polls, were dealt a blow when a third of delegates declined to back her candidacy.

Just 66.4 per cent support is the second worst result in the party’s post-war history, narrowly ahead of the 1995 election of Oskar Lafontaine. He once dubbed Nahles, then a young, fiery left-winger, a “gift from God” to their party. Now a pragmatic centrist with a leftist tinge, Ms Nahles will need all her political gifts to rebuild her enfeebled party while serving as junior coalition partner to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) in Berlin.

“It’s possible to renew a party from government, and I want to deliver the proof starting tomorrow,” Ms Nahles said at a party conference on Sunday in Wiesbaden.

Five weeks after entering their third grand coalition since 2005, the SPD remains a house divided over supporting a fourth Merkel term and 15-year-old welfare reforms that helped the German economy bounce back while undermining their party support base.

Inheriting an ambivalent, insecure party, Ms Nahles, a former labour minister at the Merkel cabinet table, is building a power centre in the Bundestag where she will also serves as SPD floor leader.

Fiery speech

Ms Nahles is the seventh SPD leader Dr Merkel has seen since she took over the CDU in 2000. The last, Martin Schulz, lasted less than a year. He proved that 100 per cent delegate support is no guarantee of success, scoring just 20.5 per cent in last September’s federal election – the party’s worst result since 1949.

In a fiery speech Ms Nahles vowed to tackle populist nationalism that posed a “threat to the basic democratic order” by restoring social democracy as the guarantor of social justice and solidarity. “Solidarity is what’s lacking most in this globalised, neo-liberal, turbo-digital world.”

She blamed last year’s weak result on “not saying how we wanted to reach our goal of justice”.

Ms Nahles gave few clues to her future strategy on Sunday, allowing challenger Simone Lange – a low-profile mayor of the northern German city of Flensburg – read her party the riot act.

After spending all but four of the last 20 years in power, Ms Lange said the SPD had “crippled itself” with a lack of “team spirit, openness and credibility”. The daily reality of its neo-liberal reforms, she said, were €416 a month basic welfare and a risk of old-age poverty even after a lifetime of working.

Social circumstances

“For all of this I would like to apologise,” she said, promising to rescind the reforms if elected. “We are destroying our social circumstances if we don’t wake up and own up to our own debate.”

Despite being a political unknown, with a last-minute candidacy, Ms Lange took 172 of 631 delegate votes.

Leading SPD figures made the most of the result, with parliamentary deputy leader Carsten Schneider calling it an “honest result”.

A Bild tabloid poll on Sunday found two-thirds of Germans think a revived SPD would be good for the country, but just a quarter of Germans think Ms Nahles is the woman to do so – down from a third in February.