SPD enters election campaign focusing on the future, climate issues

Chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz is reaching for the future, but the SPD still lacks a profile. [EPA-EFE | Clemens Bilan]

Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) want to be seen as the party of the future. That is the core message of the resolution following last weekend’s party retreat. But the SPD’s proverbial red thread – on social issues – is missing. EURACTIV Germany reports

“Forward into the new era!” This was the motto under which Saskia Esken ran for party chair of the SPD in 2019, together with Norbert Walter-Borjans. Finance Minister Olaf Scholz ran against them with Klara Geywitz and lost.

In the meantime, Scholz has become the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, and he, too, is calling for something new: “A mission for the future for our country” is the title of a document that the party adopted at a closed meeting over the weekend, which can be read as the cornerstone of the upcoming election programme.

Specifically, the party wants to demonstrate its competence for the future in four topic areas: Climate protection, digitalisation, mobility and climate change.

Uwe Jun, a political scientist and professor at the University of Trier, pointed out that two of these are actually core Green competencies, while digitalisation is more often associated with the FDP. What is the SPD up to?

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Where is the SPD’s core issue?

“It takes up current problems and promises a lot,” Jun told EURACTIV Germany. These are the central problems of our time, he said, and many parties currently say they want to do something for health, climate protection and digitalisation.

Although one of the document’s slogans is “Social. Digital. Climate neutral,” the party does not “link the social aspect with the other areas.” It takes up current problems but lacks coherence in doing so. It lacks the uniquely social democratic approach to issues that other parties will also tackle.

Oskar Niedermayer, a political scientist at Free University Berlin, agrees. “This could also have come from the Greens or the CDU,” Niedermayer told EURACTIV Germany. He stresses, however, that this is not surprising: there is no election programme yet, only a resolution that is primarily intended to convey “security in facing the future.”

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Moreover, Jun did not understand why the SPD is focusing so much on green issues. Fishing for green voters is not very promising, he said, since they are always ahead in terms of climate competence.

Alternatively, it could be understood as a rapprochement to prepare for a coalition, but that would not even be necessary, according to Jun, because the SPD only has a chance of forming a majority together with the Greens anyway.

The past has shown: “Greening campaigns bring the SPD little, at least no great electoral successes, as long as the Greens are in the opposition,” says Jun. This is because they were able to build up credibility there, which is almost inevitably lost when they are in government – which is exactly what happened to the SPD, Jun said. Just think of Agenda 2010 or the inner-party disputes of recent years.

Niedermayer explains it as follows: The SPD could be positioning itself between the Greens and the CDU/CSU on climate protection. The Greens want state-controlled bans, while the CDU, CSU (and FDP) rely on the market, for example through emissions trading. The SPD wants state intervention, but only to a limited extent.

The bottom line is that this resolution reads like “an attempt to be there,” says Niedermayer.  Obviously relevant current issues are taken up, but that is not enough to distinguish the party from other parties. Jun misses the clear profile that the party would only get by broadly weaving social justice into all future issues.

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New tone critical of the EU

Jun also misses a consistent line on Europe. The SPD is traditionally a pro-European party, and the current party resolution also calls for a “strong, sovereign Europe,” for example in competition with digital companies from the U.S. and China.

But Scholz raised eyebrows over the weekend when he criticised Brussels’ approach to vaccine procurement. “I’m angry about some of the decisions that were made last year,” Scholz told BBC Radio on Saturday (6 February). “I think there was an opportunity to order more vaccines.”

Jun therefore feels that the SPD’s image of Europe lacks “a clarity of positioning.” Niedermayer disagrees, saying that the SPD continues to be a clearly pro-European party – the criticism of vaccination was primarily directed against its CDU coalition partner, while the criticism of Brussels was collateral damage.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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