The German SPD, one of the world’s oldest mass Labour parties, is in a deep and growing crisis. It has been moving steadily rightwards, is haemorrhaging support and has recently suffered a leadership coup at the hands of those most associated with the party’s embrace of neoliberalism.
Two weeks ago party leader Kurt Beck was forced to give way to one of his predecessors, Franz Müntefering. Then foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was announced as the party’s candidate for chancellor in next year’s election.
This change of personnel represents the victory of the right wing of the SPD. Steinmeier is a political bureaucrat who was virtually unknown five years ago. As right hand man to former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, he was the author of an attack on the welfare state known as Agenda 2010.
Müntefering led the party during the implementation of the Agenda, often harshly silencing its critics, and then went on to force through the raising of the pension age to 67.
While the right wing press cheered, the coup left more serious commentators scratching their heads. Steinmeier and Müntefering are among the chief architects of the political course that has plunged the SPD into crisis.
The party has lost nearly half of its members since 1998, and is polling between just 20 and 25 percent. It faces stiff competition from the new left party Die Linke – an organisation born out of the frustration with Agenda 2010.
The return of these two leading right wingers to the head of the party seems suicidal.
Ousted party boss Kurt Beck was by no means on the left – he had always supported Agenda 2010 – but in order to mend the rift between the SPD and the trade unions and stop the membership losses he adopted more left wing rhetoric.
Yet his mild proposals to soften Agenda 2010 were too much for the right to stomach.
The change of leadership took the form of a coup, with even senior SPD members denied the right to attend the conference. Hopes that the new leadership will end the crisis are built on sand.
Steinmeier’s election strategy is based on the claim that Agenda 2010 has bolstered the German economy and reduced unemployment. But most forecasts expect the economy to stall or fall into recession before the end of the year.
And because the reduction in unemployment has been based solely on short-term jobs, unemployment is expected to shoot up again quickly.
A second issue that is destabilising not only the SPD but also its grand coalition government with the conservative CDU is Afghanistan.
Opinion polls show two thirds in favour of withdrawing German troops from the Nato‑led occupation. Taliban attacks on German troops have intensified as their commanders have identified Germany as a “weak link”.
Two German soldiers died in attacks last month, while the killing of an Afghan woman and her two children by a German army patrol has seriously undermined the argument that Germany is part of a humanitarian mission. The government decision to send an extra 1,000 troops to Afghanistan in November is giving a further impetus to the growing anti-war movement here.
The crisis in the SPD has been a boon to Die Linke, which for the first time is ahead of the SPD in polls in a western state, Saarland. On a federal level Die Linke has closed the gap between it and the SPD to a mere 5 percent.
The shift to the right in the SPD can only further strengthen the left. On the day of the coup, Michael Wendl, former deputy leader of the Verdi trade union in Bavaria, left the SPD to join Die Linke and many more defections seem likely.
The SPD’s crisis has also intensified discussion over political strategy within Die Linke, with those who want the new party to concentrate on coalition governments with the SPD at a federal or national level now grieving the loss of their potential partner.
This situation should help the left wing within Die Linke, which is fighting for the party to orientate on class struggle and social movements.
Stefan Bornost is the editor of Marx21 in Germany