With a little over a year to go to the next German election, each of its two traditional major parties, the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD), remains gripped in something of an identity crisis.
At the last election, in 2017, both recorded historically poor results. The CDU (including its Bavarian arm, the CSU) had 32.9% of the vote, its lowest share since 1949, while the SPD fared even worse with 20.5%, its lowest since 1932. But they retained a majority of seats between them (399 out of 709), and they remained in government together, with the CDU’s Angela Merkel as prime minister.
That wasn’t the preferred option for either of them. The CDU wanted to form a coalition with the Liberals (FDP) and Greens, but the Liberals wouldn’t come to the party. The SPD, which knew it had suffered electorally from being a junior partner in government, would have preferred to go into opposition, but it signed up to a new coalition once it became clear that that was the only alternative to a fresh election.
Merkel has committed to retiring at the next election. She leaves her party superficially, at least, in good shape; her government’s handling of Covid-19 has been generally praised and has boosted the CDU’s standing in the polls. It is now polling in the high 30s, at about double the support of its nearest rivals, the Greens (more about them shortly).
But Merkel is going to be a difficult act to follow. The first attempt to anoint a successor failed when defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a moderate in the Merkel image, took herself out of contention earlier this year, in the aftermath of the dispute over working with the far right in Thuringia. A new successor was due to be chosen in April, but the health crisis forced a postponement.
The leadership election is now supposed to happen at the end of the year, but none of the CDU’s candidates have aroused much enthusiasm. Instead there is much talk of the CSU leader, Markus Söder, taking the helm of the joint party.
Whichever way the leadership goes, the party will at some point have to decide whether it is happy continuing on Merkel’s centrist track – including potentially another attempt at coalition with the Greens – or whether it wants to shift rightwards and possibly end the taboo on co-operation with the far-right Alternative for Germany. But as long as it continues riding high in the polls, it can probably avoid facing some of the hard decisions for the time being.
No such luxury for the SPD, which, although it has recovered slightly in the polls from its low point of about a year ago, is still travelling only in the mid-teens, consistently three or four points behind the Greens. Like many other centre-left parties around the world it is desperately looking for a way to recapture some of its past glory.
Its response to crisis has been mixed. In March 2018, when its members voted on renewing the coalition agreement with the CDU, they overwhelmingly rejected their left wing’s argument that they would be better off forcing another election. Last December, however, they steered the party back towards the left, electing two opponents of the grand coalition, Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken, as joint leaders.
But the coalition survived, and this week the party tacked back towards the centre, choosing Olaf Scholz – Merkel’s finance minister, and the man that Walter-Borjans and Esken beat last year – to be its standard-bearer in next year’s election.
The SPD seems to have a particularly bad case of it, but this sort of split personality is not uncommon these days among centre-left parties. Part of them yearns for “product differentiation”, for an identifiably left-wing orientation of the sort that a Bernie Sanders, a Benoît Hamon or a Jeremy Corbyn would provide. But another part (and often the same people) sees that as the road to electoral oblivion, and resolves to persevere with the attempt to occupy the middle ground.
Competition with the Greens may or may not make the problem worse, depending on how you look at it. If you think of SPD and Greens as just rival wings of the same centre-left movement, then taken as a whole they’re not doing too badly: for most of this term their combined strength has been well ahead of the CDU, and even now, with the Covid-induced bounce, it’s only a few points behind.
But precisely because there’s no obvious ideological gap between the two, it makes it hard for the SPD to forge its own identity. And from the Greens’ point of view, tying themselves too closely to the SPD may not be a good move – they want to be ready if the CDU decides to stay on the centrist track and makes them a worthwhile offer after the next election.
It’s going to be a very interesting year in German politics, but clearly there will also be lessons in it for parties elsewhere.