Germany’s Social Democrats Elect Left-Wing Leaders

The party finally makes a choice, but it does so with two little-known new leaders.

Norbert Walter-Borjans, then finance minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, addresses the Bundesrat in Berlin, February 20, 2014
Norbert Walter-Borjans, then finance minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, addresses the Bundesrat in Berlin, February 20, 2014 (Bundesrat/Frank Bräuer)

Earlier this month, I argued that lurching to the left would be a risky strategy for Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD), but that the alternative — staying in a grand coalition with the center-right — is too.

A change could scare off centrist voters, who have an alternative in Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats or Germany’s pragmatic Green party. But the grand coalition has wearied leftists, who have an alternative in the Greens and the far-left Die Linke.

Not making a clear choice has been worst of all. The SPD has fallen below 15 percent in recent polls, behind the Christian Democrats and Greens and neck and neck with the far-right Alternative for Germany.

Decision

At least the party made a decision on Saturday, when it gave the leadership to two left-wing candidates, Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans. They got 53 percent of the vote against 45 percent for Brandenburg politician Klara Geywitz and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who are of the centrist wing of the party.

Esken and Walter-Borjans have not argued for leaving the government outright, but they do want to renegotiate the 2018 coalition agreement, which is not a realistic prospect. The pact took months to complete. The Christian Democrats have warned they will not accept renegotiations.

Early election

The outcome could be an early election, but neither Esken nor Walter-Borjans is well-known outside the SPD.

Then again, the presumptive Christian Democratic candidate, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer — who succeeded Merkel as party leader, but not chancellor, in 2018 — isn’t popular either.

Germany’s most popular politician after Merkel? Scholz. The same one who lost the SPD leadership on Saturday.