The head of Germany’s Social Democrats said on Monday (27 May) she would propose a vote on her position as leader of the party in parliament, after her decision to stay in coalition with Angela Merkel’s conservatives was criticised by the party’s left.
The SPD suffered a double humiliation on Sunday. Defeated in a regional vote in the northern state of Bremen for the first time in 73 years, the party also saw its share of the vote slide more than 11 points in EU parliamentary elections, to 15.8%, behind the Greens.
“I don’t think those debates about positions in the party are wise. But now that, as leader, I have been put up to this challenge, we will have clarity,” Andrea Nahles told the ZDF public broadcaster.
“I therefore suggest that we bring forward the parliamentary faction leadership vote that was planned for the end of September and hold it next week instead. And all those who think they want to go down a different path should stand up and say ‘I’m running’.”
Nahles is both national party leader and floor leader of the SPD in the lower house of parliament.
She had earlier announced a retreat on 3 June where senior party members would discuss electoral strategy and how to stand out from Merkel’s conservatives on issues such as climate change and social policies, including pensions.
Her impromptu announcement of a floor leader’s vote during the TV interview reflected deep internal dissatisfaction at her failure to reverse the SPD’s poor results at the ballot box.
Nahles acknowledged in the interview that her decision was in response to a letter sent to her by SPD lawmakers from the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia demanding a vote on her leadership of the SPD in parliament.
It was not immediately clear if anyone would challenge Nahles, who repeated her position that the SPD is best served by staying in government and delivering policies that matter to voters.
German weekly Bild am Sonntag reported that former SPD leader Martin Schulz wants to replace Nahles as head of the parliamentary party. An SPD spokeswoman said Nahles and Schulz were in regular discussions but the talks were confidential.
If she loses the vote, it would be another blow to her leadership and embolden leftist members of the SPD who would prefer the party to quit the coalition with Merkel.
Any move to pull out could trigger snap elections or a possible new coalition. Three more regional elections take place in September and October, all in former Communist eastern states where the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is strong.
Both options are unappealing to the SPD and conservative leadership and could hasten the departure of Merkel, who has already handed the leadership of her Christian Democrats (CDU) to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.
The SPD elected Nahles as leader last year, hoping she could reinvigorate the party after heavy losses in a 2017 national election under Schulz.
Poll setbacks under her leadership have fuelled discontent among many members of the SPD who want to ditch their second consecutive stint as junior partner under Merkel. They want the party to reinvent itself in opposition and rediscover its leftist roots.
SPD deputy leader Ralf Stegner, SPD youth wing leader Kevin Kuehnert and lawmaker Matthias Miersch called on the party to have the courage to change tack.
“The grand coalition has an end date: at the latest, September 2021 and if needed sooner. We have not signed up for a (long-term) subscription with the conservatives,” they said, referring to the date when the next federal election is due.
Nahles’ response to the election humiliation heralds turbulence in a coalition already beset by infighting. It nearly collapsed last year due to rows over migrant policy and the sacking of the head of domestic intelligence.