Lurching to the Left Is Risky for Germany’s SPD. So Is the Alternative

A left-wing strategy could alienate centrist voters, but a centrist strategy has wearied leftists.

German finance minister and Social Democratic Party leader Olaf Scholz attends a debate in parliament in Berlin, July 8, 2018
German finance minister and Social Democratic Party leader Olaf Scholz attends a debate in parliament in Berlin, July 8, 2018 (Deutscher Bundestag/Inga Kjer)

Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) are increasingly forced into coalitions with the far left. Such pacts haven’t hurt their counterparts in Portugal and Spain, but Germany is a more conservative country with a consensual style of politics and arguably less need for redistributive policies.

The risk is that a left-wing strategy will alienate centrist voters. But the alternative — continuing to rule in grand coalitions with the right — is wearying leftists.

Left-wing pacts

  • The SPD is the second largest party in the government of Thuringia, where it rules with Die Linke and the Greens. The three lost their majority in an election last weekend. They will need the support of either the Christian Democrats or the liberal Free Democrats to stay in power.
  • The Social Democrats in Bremen tied themselves to the Greens and Die Linke when they ruled out a coalition with the right ahead of the state election in May. It didn’t prevent them from losing power to the Christian Democrats.
  • Following gains for the Greens in the 2016 Berlin election, the SPD ended its coalition with the Christian Democrats in the city and joined with the left.
  • The first time the SPD teamed up with Die Linke was in 2009 in Brandenburg, the region surrounding Berlin.

Alternative

Until then, the SPD had refused to work with the party, which traces half its heritage to the ruling communist party of the former East Germany. The two disagreed on everything from the EU to industrial policy to NATO membership to relations with Russia.

They still do, but now Die Linke is the only alternative to the Christian Democrats, with whom the Social Democrats have governed in a grand coalition since 2013.

Many Social Democrats blame the grand coalition with Angela Merkel for their decline in popularity. The SPD fell from 41 percent support in 1998 to 26 percent in 2013 to 20.5 percent in 2017. Polls now put its support under 15 percent, far behind the Greens, who are approaching 25 percent, and neck and neck with the far-right Alternative for Germany.

Two models

My view is that the Social Democrats made the mistake of trying to please everyone: blue-collar voters, whose values tend to be more conservative; urban progressives; environmentalists; and middle-class voters, who care more about economic than social policy. That’s how you end up pleasing no one.

The party needs to decide who and what it’s for, and it has essentially two models:

  1. The Scandinavian model. Move to the right on immigration and security in a bid to woo working-class voters. The result from Denmark is only mildly encouraging. The Social Democrats there are the largest party, but they haven’t won back many voters from the far right.
  2. The Iberian model. Social democrats in Portugal and Spain made deals with the far left and won. In the most recent Spanish election, support for the center-left Socialist Party went up from 23 to 29 percent — mostly at the expense of the far-left Podemos. In Portugal, António Costa won reelection on the back of an alliance with the communists and Greens.

Germany is not Iberia

One of the reasons the Portuguese and Spanish left have won recent elections there is that they campaigned against the austerity policies of the right. Germany could spend more generously on pensions and welfare, and the former East still lags behind the West, but middle-income Germans don’t typically respond well to big tax and spending promises.

Another argument against an Iberian strategy is that Germany’s Social Democrats have lost voters not just to the Greens but to the Christian Democrats, who, under Merkel, have occupied the center.

Coalitions with the far left tend to produce policies that alienate precisely those voters. In Bremen, for example, the SPD legislated to ban cars from the medieval inner city by 2030 and close the city-state’s only coal-fired power station.

It puts the SPD in another damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t dilemma: it loses voters to the Greens if it isn’t seen as taking the environmental crisis seriously, but it can never outflank the Greens on the environment, at least not without losing the support of car-owning, middle-class voters, who already feel they’re bearing the brunt of Germany’s green energy transition.