New SPD leader under pressure to shift to left

Andrea Nahles has softened leftist tone since serving as minister under Angela Merkel

On her first day in her new job, Germany’s new Social Democrat leader Andrea Nahles has come under pressure to renew the party by reviving its left-wing profile.

Senior figures within the SPD’s left-wing camp, as well as the hard-left Linke party, expressed optimism that the 47-year-old leader would strike a new tone – and adopt a new direction – to outflank chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats (CDU).

Germany’s first woman SPD leader rose through the ranks as the fiery left-winger but has softened her tone since serving as federal labour minister under Dr Merkel.

Weeks after the SPD entered a third grand coalition in Berlin, to little jubilation among rank-and-file, just two-thirds of delegates backed Ms Nahles as leader on Sunday, putting her on notice to pull off a political turnaround – and soon.


The fact that her challenger on Sunday, the little-known mayor of Flensburg, Simone Lange, took 28 per cent support was a warning, according to Ms Lange.

“It confirms a great longing for change, real renewal and also for new faces,” she added.

‘Artificial calm’

Kevin Kühnert, the SPD youth-wing leader who sparked a revolt against the grand coalition, warned Ms Nahles not to allow the party return to “artificial calm”.

“We need to kick off real debate . . . that’s my understanding of renewal and what we didn’t have in the past,” he said.

On Sunday, Ms Nahles promised to tackle the threat to democracy posed by nationalism and populism by restoring social democracy as the guarantor of social justice and solidarity.

But she has yet to present concrete ideas and the question now is how courageous Ms Nahles feels, given her party has slumped to just 18 per cent in polls.

As well as welfare and labour issues, the SPD has vowed to dedicate its third term in office with Dr Merkel’s CDU to renewal of the EU.

Ex-leader Martin Schulz pushed Europe into first place in the new programme for government, vowing to end the Merkel “austerity diktat” in Europe by backing French reform plans. But the new SPD leadership is noticeably cooler on French president Emmanuel Macron’s plans, particularly the pragmatic, centrist SPD finance minister Olaf Scholz.

While senior CDU figures have dismissed the Europe chapter of their coalition agreement as vague political “poetry”, Ms Nahles has insisted she will “push for the implementation of the [Europe] chapter, letter by letter”.

Meanwhile the left-wing opposition Linke said it was optimistic that the rise of Ms Nahles might open previously closed doors of political co-operation.

Dietmar Bartsch, parliamentary party leader of Linke, said the rise to SPD leader of a woman with roots in its left wing was a “small spark of hope” for a shift to the left in Germany.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin