Scholz has work cut out to end SPD’s electoral jinx in Germany

Party of man most Germans think has chancellor potential is stuck at 18% in polls

 Olaf Scholz: Despite his modest charisma and rhetorical ability, the SPD will run a personalised campaign that pushes his political experience and competence. Photograph:  Kay Nietfeld

Olaf Scholz: Despite his modest charisma and rhetorical ability, the SPD will run a personalised campaign that pushes his political experience and competence. Photograph: Kay Nietfeld

 

If Olaf Scholz hadn’t unveiled his election slogan this week, he could have done worse than channel Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond: I am big, it’s the party that got small.

In seven weeks, when Germans vote in the election for a new federal government, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) hopes its man can end its four-term electoral jinx.

With gritted teeth, Germany’s feud-riven centre-left party united a year ago behind the 63 year old, who was finance minister and deputy chancellor in Angela Merkel’s cabinet.

Only this week, though, in a small Berlin cinema, did the SPD unveil to journalists its campaign plan to take back the chancellery.

Despite his modest charisma and rhetorical ability, the SPD will run a personalised campaign around Scholz that pushes his political experience and competence with the slogan: “Scholz packt das an” ( Scholz can tackle it). 

The challenge in the next 50 days is to find out what “it” is, and win back some of the 11 million voters the party has lost since 1998.

That was the year Gerhard Schröder sailed to power on a third-way wave, promising “Innovation and Social Justice”. That tide went out seven years later as his tough economic and social reforms to revive the German economy were viewed by core SPD voters as a betrayal.

Back then, Scholz was SPD general secretary and it was his job to sell reforms, which he supported, to MPs and voters who didn’t. Though the reforms were successful, he hopes voters have forgotten all that. His campaign posters will frame him as chancellor material in stark black-and-white portraits.

Statist manifesto

At their launch, some journalists wondered why, in the images, Scholz’s head doesn’t appear to match his body. Some joked the mismatch was symbolic. 

Two years ago Scholz, seen as an SPD centrist, lost out his party leadership bid to leftist rivals. After failing to turn around the party as promised, though, they begged Scholz to run as lead election candidate, but locked him into an statist manifesto.

This promises to boost the minimum wage by a quarter to €12, roll back precarious labour contracts, simplify social welfare checks and boost child allowance. Tax breaks for lower earners are in the mix, and also index-linked rents and climate measures that cushion low-earners from higher costs.

Though this is all an interesting departure for Scholz, from the SPD’s more pragmatic-conservative camp, he is currently the man most Germans think has chancellor potential. There are only two problems: first, in a weak line-up he only has one-third support; and, second, German voters elect parties, not candidates. His SPD is stuck at about 18 per cent in polls – two points below its historic disaster in 2017.

Damaged brand

“The SPD still has no all-round coherent political concept,” said Dr Gero Neugebauer, political scientist at Berlin’s Free University. Similar to struggling social democrats all over Europe, he says, the German SPD “don’t know who their voters are anymore, to whom they are politically committed”.

While a feeling of betrayal lingers among many older ex-SPD voters, the party attracts just 10 per cent of the 18-29-year-old voter group compared with 36 per cent who back the Greens.

The SPD’s damaged brand is one reason why the party is selling Olaf Scholz as the safe, experienced pair of hands: the federal finance minister who helped end corporate tax avoidance, and who sidelined the Merkel-era balanced budget obsession for €400 billion in debt-financed pandemic stimulus.

His sober, low-key visits to flood-hit regions this week, promising fast cash support for desperate locals, hit the right notes with many.

Hitting all the wrong notes, by comparison, is his centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) rival Armin Laschet. He was filmed giggling with aides after visiting a town wrecked by floods three weeks ago and has since lost eight points in polls – though his CDU still leads the pack on 27 per cent.

Facing an insurmountable 10-point gap, the SPD is focused instead on other paths back to power beyond the CDU: with the Greens, the liberal Free Democrats, even the Left Party.  

“It will be a tight race,” said Scholz to Bild this week. “A poll at the weekend showed us just two points behind the Greens. The critical phase begins when people return from their holidays.”

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