The man who could topple Chancellor Angela Merkel wears hooded sweatshirts, loves amateur soccer and has yet to finish his politics degree. His nickname is Baby Face. His real name is Kevin Kühnert. The 28-year-old who runs the youth wing of Germany's centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been touring the country to convince fellow members to vote down a coalition deal that would keep Merkel in power for another four years – and his own party in place as the junior partner to her Christian Democrats.
Three months ago few people had heard of Kühnert. Now his boyish face, with its rebellious cowlick, is ubiquitous. He is a regular on prime-time talkshows and routinely described as a rising star of German politics. But he is also an enfant terrible for Europe’s political elites, who breathed a sigh of relief when Merkel announced last month that she had secured a governing deal, seemingly ending five months of political limbo in Europe’s most important capital.
But that left one major obstacle, and partly because of Kühnert's spirited campaign it has been growing taller by the day: the grass roots of the Social Democrats still need to approve the deal. The result of the vote will be announced on Sunday. If the 463,000 members reject the coalition Germany faces the prospect of an unstable minority government, new elections or both. In any case, it would likely spell the end of the Merkel era. That would be fine with Kühnert.
"Going into another coalition with Merkel is bad for social democracy and bad for democracy," Kühnert said, summing up his pitch as he rushed to another campaign stop in an eastern district of Berlin. Many in his party agree.
One recent afternoon Kühnert arrived at its headquarters in Berlin wrapped in a thick scarf and nursing a cup of peppermint tea. He was not feeling well. Back-to-back speaking events in 23 cities, with multiple television interviews every day, not to speak of Facebook Lives and podcasts, were taking their toll.
While a volunteer dabbed make-up on his blotched cheeks, in preparation for a camera interview, Kühnert recounted how energised he had been when his party had campaigned against Merkel last year on the premise that they would either win or go into opposition.
The leadership had reiterated that pledge on election night, after they had just got the worst election result since the second World War. But the mood was combative, upbeat even. They would rebuild in opposition; they would come back. “It felt like a new beginning,” Kühnert recalled. That feeling did not last. Within weeks the party leadership spectacularly reversed course and entered coalition talks with the chancellor. “How can voters trust us if we can’t even trust our own leaders?” Kühnert said.
The makeup was done. Kühnert checked his watch and popped an aspirin. He was, he said, “ready for the next round”. It is a battle between hope and fear. It pits those, like Kühnert, urging the party to regroup in opposition with the hope of growing back into the formidable political force it once was, against those who fear that new elections now might just kill it.
“Suicide for fear of death” has become a common refrain for those urging comrades to work with Merkel one more time. Kühnert sees it differently. “Being a dwarf today so we can be giants in the future” is one thing he likes to say. And “If we do politics because we’re scared, we’re lost.”
The Social Democrats are Germany’s oldest party. In its proud 155-year-history it has fought for workers’ rights, battled fascism and helped shape Germany’s postwar welfare state. But, like many of its sister parties elsewhere in Europe, it has been self-destructing at an alarming pace.
Its vote share has halved in two decades. Many blame the cosy working relationship with Merkel, which critics say has stripped the party of its identity and its place as the leading voice of opposition. The Social Democrats were still winning 34 per cent of votes when they entered their first coalition with Merkel, in 2005; in September that had shrunk to 20 per cent. In one poll last week the far-right Alternative für Deutschland pulled ahead of them for the first time.
Kühnert was born in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell. Capitalism had beaten communism. Trickle-down economics, already the default ideology on the right, was embraced by the left, too. Some say that is when the problems of social democracy began.
Kühnert joined his party when he was 15, the same year Merkel became chancellor and formed her first coalition with the Social Democrats. Like a whole generation of young Germans, Kühnert came of age in a period when the traditionally opposing camps on left and right governed jointly, blunting political debate and pushing voters in search of an opposition to the extremes.
“Anyone who is in their mid-20s today has pretty much only known Merkel and these grand coalitions,” Kühnert said in an interview. “She embodies this style of politics.” As for the Social Democrats, he said, “We have become the party that governs with the conservatives, the party that makes things get worse a little more slowly.”
In Kühnert’s view the Social Democrats have failed to offer distinctive answers to the most pressing issue of the day: the future of the welfare state. The tension about migration, he argues, is in large part a proxy conflict at a time when large parts of the population feel neglected by the state and see migrants as competing for scarce public goods.
Later, addressing an attentive crowd in Berlin, he boiled down his argument to a question. “Why should we exist as a party in the 21st century?” he asked. “What do voters get from us that they don’t get anywhere else? Right now: Nothing.”
Politics has been a keen interest for him since childhood. According to his grandmother, Kühnert watched parliamentary debates on television when he was in primary school. (He is a little embarrassed about that.) The only child of two civil servants, he was named after Kevin Keegan, the English soccer player, whom his mother adored, and soccer has shaped his politics. His team, a plucky little fifth-league club called Tennis Borussia Berlin, has a proud Jewish history and several Turkish players, and regularly encounters anti-Semitism and racist slurs from hostile fans.
The club's purple colours sometimes draw homophobic jeers, too. Kühnert is himself gay, but he never talks about it. "I don't want to do identity politics," he said. Breathless commentators already compare him to Gerhard Schröder, the former chancellor, who had also been a leader of the party's youth wing. The tabloid Bild recently printed extracts of Kühnert's secondary-school yearbook, where friends bet he would be chancellor one day.
He dismisses such predictions as media hysteria but rules nothing out. If Kühnert prevails on Sunday it will not be the first time he has beaten the odds and his elders. In his first year at secondary school he was elected student representative on the back of a rousing speech, beating his contenders, who were all older. Later, aged 20, when his local soccer club faced financial problems, he convened an extraordinary members’ meeting and persuaded them to fire the entire board. He then founded a charity to raise money for the club, printing T-shirts to sell.
What worries Kühnert most is that once again too many party members might opt for short-term stability over long-term democratic revival. One party member recently challenged him during a rally. “I don’t understand you,” the young man said, noting that the coalition deal gives the Social Democrats three powerful ministries and a governing programme that by some estimates contains a majority of their proposals.
Why reject this? “We should not just worry about the next four years but about the next 40,” Kühnert replied. “I don’t want to be the last generation that had an SPD.” – New York Times