The Social Democratic tragedy

The German Social Democrats are hoping that voters will today defy all the pre-election predictions and give them a sufficient number of seats in the Bundestag to form a government with the Greens. It’s pretty unlikely: for most of the election it looked as if the Christian Democrats were way ahead, and although the Social Democrats have caught up a little, it still looks as if the best they can expect is to be the junior partner in a Christian Democrat-led grand coalition for another four years.

I was at the Social Democrats’ final rally at the Brandenburg Gate on Friday evening, at which their candidate for chancellor, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, finally seemed to have some fire in his belly like his old boss Gerhard Schröder (whom he once again praised for saying no to President Bush over Iraq while avoiding the subject of the current war in Afganistan). But although he actually laid into Angela Merkel this time, it felt fake and slightly surreal because, as vice-chancellor and foreign minister, he has been her right-hand man for the last four years.

After Steinmeier, the party’s leader (as opposed to candidate; in Germany the roles are usually split) Franz Müntefering came onstage and expressed the hope that 2009 might turn out to be like 1969. The election in that year followed the only other grand coalition  in the history of the Federal Republic, which was led by the Christian Democrat Kurt-Georg Kiesinger (I tell the story of that grand coalition, which prompted the formation of the APO, or Extra-Parliamentary Oppposition, in my book, Utopia or Auschwitz). The Social Democrat candidate was Willy Brandt, who, like Steinmeier, was also foreign minister. And, like Steinmeier, he was way behind in the polls (although as Müntefering admitted, there were fewer of them in those days) but went on to become chancellor and a Social Democrat icon.

It’s a nice idea, but it’s unikely to happen this time. The real issue for the Social Democrats is not whether they can win today but what kind of future the 140 year-old party has after today. In an interesting article in Die Zeit this week, Giovanni di Lorenzo draws a more convincing parallel involving past and present eras than the one Müntefering drew. He points out that the Social Democrats have been in power twice in the history of the Federal Republic: from 1969 to 1982 under Brandt and then Schmidt and from 1998 to 2005 under Schröder. In both cases they made difficult but probably necessary decisions in government but failed to convince their base. In both cases, it thus led to the formation of a breakaway left-wing party (the Greens in the first case and the Linke in the second) that ultimately weakened them – the Social Democratic tragedy.

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