The SPD’s new left-wing leadership could prove just the jolt Germany needs

Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans could breathe some much-needed oxygen into the country’s politics. 

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Doom and gloom have greeted yesterday’s news that two left-wingers have won the dual leadership of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans are barely household names in their own party and were the underdogs in the run-off against the party’s centrist establishment, represented by Olaf Scholz and Klara Geywitz. Yet last night they beat the frontrunners by 53 per cent to 45 per cent in a vote of a party membership increasingly dismayed at the SPD’s fading identity and dismal, mid-teens polling numbers. Members may not have been very familiar with Esken and Walter-Borjans, but with the other “change” candidates knocked out in earlier stages, the duo seemed to many like the only alternative to more of the same.

Much of German press reaction ranges from sad resignation to something verging on hysteria. The conservative but normally measured Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) today thunders that the SPD seems to have lost any sense of “national responsibility”. The liberal-conservative Welt leads with quotes about the SPD’s “self-destruction”. Even the centre-left Süddeutsche Zeitung laments that the party is so at odds with itself and doubts that Esken and Walter-Borjans, in contrast with federal finance minister and former Hamburg mayor Scholz, have the experience and base in the party to get things done. 

All agree that the result will destabilise the “grand coalition” of Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its conservative (CSU) sister party and the SPD. Esken, in particular, has questioned its future and suggested that the CDU and CSU will have to make hefty leftwards concessions to keep the SPD on-board. At a conference in Berlin next weekend the SPD will vote on whether to stay or to walk. 

The pessimism is understandable. Since Gerhard Schröder lost the chancellery to Merkel in 2005, the SPD has governed as the junior partner in grand coalitions with her for 10 of the 14 succeeding years and along the way has has lurched from crisis to crisis. It has gone through 11 leaders, five of them provisional, and seen its vote share fall from its election-losing 34 per cent in 2005 to a record-low 20.5 per cent in 2017, which according to current polls would fall again by at least a third were elections held today. 

Pushed back to old strongholds like the industrial Ruhr in Germany’s north-west, the party has seemed increasingly irrelevant as the more broadly-appealing Greens have overtaken it and established themselves as the pre-eminent party of the German centre-left. To many, therefore, the SPD’s lurch to the left looks like another morbid symptom of the party’s long slide into irrelevance; one that could tip Germany’s government into crisis at an important moment in national and world affairs. Esken and Walter-Borjans seem particularly weak on foreign policy, saying little about it other than to defer to the SPD’s usual knee-jerk waffle about international peace rather than seriously engaging with the choices before the country.

Yet there is another way of looking at the SPD’s choice: as a gamble on something different, at least, in a party and a country that both need a breath of fresh air. Esken and “NoWaBo” may be relatively new faces; she joined the Bundestag only in 2013 and he has only ever held office at state level in North-Rhine Westphalia. But they have their merits. In a party and a country that are often woefully behind the curve on all things digital, Esken has devoted much of her parliamentary energy to issues of privacy, security and consumer rights in the digital economy. NoWaBo made his name as a state minister of finance by buying Swiss bank data from whistleblowers to pursue tax dodgers. He ruffled feathers in the process but achieved staggering results: €18m spent on leaked tax data produced €2.3bn in recovered revenue for the state and some €4bn for other German states. There is a solid case for Esken’s digital savvy and NoWaBo’s anti-vested interests flair in an age of abusive technology giants and uneven economic playing fields.

The claim that Esken and NoWaBo (“NoWaBo-fakis” to his detractors) are wildly left-wing deserves to be assessed in the context of a German economic debate that has skewed far to the right of economic orthodoxy in recent years. A country with negative interest rates where a moderate party (the CDU) jokes about its “fetish” for balanced books with posters showing a leather police hat on a black zero is not a country enjoying a healthy economic debate. As the economist Christian Odendahl puts it, Esken and NoWaBo are by international comparison about as hard-left as the IMF, in that they want more of Germany’s vast surplus to be spent on wide-eyed priorities like school, digital and rail improvements. Their proposed minimum wage increase to €12 an hour, below the level currently being proposed in Britain by renowned hardline socialist Boris Johnson, would inject some much-needed demand into the slowing eurozone economy. Meanwhile, their insistence that the grand coalition improve its dismally unambitious climate package puts them somewhere close to such extreme lefties as French president Emmanuel Macron and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte. 

Then there is the leadership question: will Esken and NoWaBo hurl Germany into a political meltdown? An imminent conflagration is possible but unlikely. Walter-Borjans was conciliatory about the grand coalition in his victory statement last night. But the two stand to raise the temperature of the country’s long-refrigerated political discourse somewhat. By repositioning the SPD they might at least temporarily win a fresh hearing from voters; with a giant low-wage sector and particularly high wealth inequality, Germany offers a decent-sized electorate for a redistributionist party willing to make the arguments. The duo might promote worthwhile arguments that under the cautious leadership of Scholz - dubbed “Olaf Schäuble” only somewhat unfairly - would have gone under-articulated. (Nor, for what it is worth, does yesterday’s result entirely prevent an SPD centrist from securing a run at the chancellery at the next election.)

Nor should one automatically mourn the grand coalition if it does fall. Merkel would probably reluctantly form a minority government to guide the country through its presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of next year, using the spaces vacated by SPD ministers to bring up talent in the CDU and perhaps better shape the contest raging in her party over its future. Another possibility, before or after a new election, would be some informal or formal deal between the CDU/CSU and the buoyant Greens, whose attitudes on Europe, the environment, the economy and Germany’s geopolitical place in the world might steer Europe’s largest economy in a welcome direction. Nothing is certain, but it is perfectly conceivable that the election of Esken and Walter-Borjans will, one way or another, breathe some much-needed oxygen into the politics of a country that badly needs an open and robust contest about its future. 

There is, in other words, a case for looking at the SPD’s choice in a broader historical context. “One of the curiosities of today’s SPD is that the best way to advance in the party is to distance oneself as much as possible from Gerhard Schröder’s chancellorship,” laments the commentary in today’s FAZ. This is understandable. Schröder did some necessary things - making the German labour market more competitive, modernising German society, breaking some taboos in German foreign policy - but the lesson is not that Germany needs a copy-paste of his chancellorship. Today it faces different challenges: growing economic divides, disruptive technological challenges, a less certain American security umbrella, environmental demands. The SPD may or may not be part of the answer to those challenges. But it can certainly contribute some vigour and impulse to the debates leading up to that answer. For that Esken and Walter-Borjans might - just might - prove a blessing.

Jeremy Cliffe is International Editor of the New Statesman.