BERLIN — Whenever Germany’s Social Democrats are certain that they cannot fall any lower, a cracking sound comes from under their feet.
Following last week’s election, in which the SPD brought home one of the worst results in its 150-year history, the party wasted no time in announcing a dramatic change of course. Party leader Martin Schulz’s announced that “the days of cooperation with the Christian Democrats now come to an end.”
His decision to take the bull by the horns is a strident move but it’s also a desperate one. If it’s going to pay off, the party will have to do more than simply go into opposition and hope a more combative stance will rekindle its electoral fortunes. It will have to win back the voters who have fled the fold — many of them to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
To be sure, the SPD was not the only one to suffer at the polls. Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) received an equally severe battering. And a shockingly strong showing by the AfD — now in the Bundestag as the third biggest party — was a major blow to everyone.
But for the SPD it was a game-changer. Four years ago, Schulz’s predecessor Sigmar Gabriel barely managed to convince the party — after intense lobbying and an internal membership referendum — to back a coalition with Merkel. Its electoral disaster this time means rank-and-file SPD members would be unlikely to green-light another ostensibly self-destructive coalition.
Moving into the opposition in itself will by no means magically resolve the strategic problems the SPD faces.
By going into the opposition, the SPD clearly hopes to change the equation. It wants time to lick its wounds and gather its strength so that it can re-emerge again, ideologically purified and ready to rule.
It’s a sensible strategy. The final weeks of campaigning made the party’s dilemma painfully clear. Its track record of joint government with Merkel meant the SPD was in no position to outline a convincing alternative to the status quo. Nor could campaigners criticize Merkel on divisive policies related to the euro crisis, migration and Brexit.
But while giving up on governance, for now, may help the party regain voters’ confidence, moving into the opposition in itself will by no means magically resolve the strategic problems it faces.
It’s a lesson that center-left parties across Europe are currently learning the hard way.
SPD leader Martin Schulz, Labour Minister Andrea Nahles and SPD treasurer Dietmar Nietan, one day after the election | Michele Tantussi/AFP via Getty Images
In France, Spain, Ireland and the Netherlands, center-left parties became further sidelined and internally divided in the wake of their electoral defeats. If receding into the opposition can, in fact, help strengthen a wounded party, the strategy hasn’t worked its magic elsewhere.
The bitter truth is: While clinging to power has certainly been part of the problem for some of Europe’s center-left parties, moving into the opposition can only be the first step toward recovery.
The reasons behind the SPD’s devastating defeat in Germany clearly show why that is.
The Social Democrats lost approximately half-a-million votes to far-left party Die Linke and to the far-right AfD. At the same time, the proportion of blue-collar voters — traditionally the SPD’s core base — reached an unprecedented low of 24 percent.
In large parts of eastern Germany, the SPD has become a Labino — a labor party in name only. Instead of supporting the Social Democrats, lower-middle-class voters flocked to right-wing populists, who happily masqueraded as defenders of the ordinary people — an ironic charade given the AfD’s neoliberal outlook.
This dramatic voter defection can be explained by cultural and economic factors. The fact that SPD voters defected to the far right shows that they are susceptible to the AfD’s rhetoric of a declining Germany.
Exit polls on election day showed that an overwhelming percentage of AfD voters are deeply concerned about a possible “loss of German culture” and “drastic changes to life in Germany,” and fear that “the influence of Islam in Germany is too great.” These fears may be exaggerated, but that does not diminish their potency.
Worse still, there is a notable lack of public trust on economic and social issues. Only 38 percent of German voters trust the Social Democrats to “guarantee social justice,” according to one recent poll. It’s a particularly harsh blow for the party that long considered its unique contribution to German politics to be just that.
The SPD will need to strike a delicate balance between cultural reassurance and classic left-wing economics.
The key question plaguing Social Democrats now will be: Can this trend be reversed?
Ultimately, the party’s success may hinge on whether it is prepared to bridge the cultural and economic chasm that lies between the increasingly cosmopolitan party and its increasingly unhappy former voters. Some voters could be brought back in the fold if the party makes a generational change in leadership that signals it can adapt to changing times.
On a policy level, the SPD will need to strike a delicate balance between cultural reassurance and classic left-wing economics. The party must focus its attention on lost supporters on the left and the right who — justifiably or not — feel culturally and economically marginalized.
Exit polls suggest this would be a worthwhile endeavor. Among AfD voters, 60 percent said they voted for the party not because they agreed with its program, but in spite of it. Among those who voted for Die Linke, 39 percent said the same.
Martin Schulz and Andrea Nahles at the SPD headquarters | Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
The silver lining for Social Democrats may well be that these first-time populist voters could still return to their former political home. But for this to happen, they need to be convinced — not condemned.
The party’s move into the opposition should come with a clear stance against political extremism, especially now that the AfD will be sitting alongside them in parliament. But an effort to engage with disgruntled voters should be the party’s next move.
Confronted with the unprecedented rise of Germany’s far right, it is now up to the SPD to offer voters a respectable alternative to the Alternative. Otherwise, there’s no telling how low the party will go.
Michael Bröning is head of the international policy department of the Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung, a think tank affiliated to the Social Democratic Party of Germany.