An old party with an ageing membership, fronted by a politician with all the charisma of a middle-ranking bank clerk, following the humiliating descent from national institution to electoral also-rans already suffered by its comrades across Europe. The obituary of Germany’s Social Democratic party (SPD) had already been written.
Yet as Germany’s election campaign is about to enter its home stretch, it is the centre-left party of Olaf Scholz that is enjoying a surge of energy as its rivals start to lag.
The last five polls published over the course of last week have shown the SPD overtaking the Greens, who looked on course to be contenders for the top spot in the spring. In a survey published by pollster INSA on Sunday, the SPD pulled level with the Christian Democratic Union of the outgoing chancellor, Angela Merkel, for the first time since spring 2017, with both parties on 22% of the vote.
Under Germany’s proportional voting system, Scholz could become the next chancellor even if his party came second behind the CDU – his great idol Helmut Schmidt managed to do so in 1976. Going by current polls, it would require the SPD to rule out entering a conservative coalition with the Christian Democrats and Free Democratic party, and persuade the pro-business, anti-tax FDP to join a power-sharing deal with the SPD and the Green party instead.
If Scholz’s name were on the ballot on 26 September, rather than that of his party, he would already be the undisputed frontrunner: in one survey published last week, 41% of those asked said they would vote him directly as chancellor if they could, compared with only 16% who opted for Merkel’s designate successor of the centre-right, Armin Laschet, and 12% for the Green party candidate, Annalena Baerbock.
The struggles of the two former frontrunners is the most obvious factor that explains the Social Democrats’ revival. “Scholz’s current strength is mainly a result of the weakness of his rivals,” said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin.
The approval ratings of Baerbock and Laschet, neither of whom have held ministerial posts at a national level, have shrivelled as the voting public had a chance to scrutinise their characters more closely and imagine them in Merkel’s place. Both have looked gaffe-prone.
Scholz, the current finance minister and a former labour minister and mayor of Hamburg, has hardly shone on the campaign trail either. But neither has the taciturn northerner, once nicknamed “Scholzomat” for his monotone delivery, put a foot wrong.
Yet the SPD’s campaign is also running more smoothly than many expected. Scholz, who hails from the party’s right, was nominated as his party’s candidate for chancellor even though it is run by two politicians from its left. Indeed, Scholz lost out to Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken in the race for the party leadership just a year and a half ago.
On the campaign trail, the two wings have put a convincing show of an inner-party truce. At Berlin’s UFA film studios last week, Scholz shared a stage with Kevin Kühnert, the leftwing former leader of the SPD youth wing who had staged a rebellion to prevent his party forming an alliance with the CDU in 2018.
Kühnert, who has in the past advocated collectivising large German companies such as BMW, stuck to his script, airing scepticism of a referendum, due to be held in the German capital on the same day as the national vote, to expropriate large corporate landlords.
Scholz, in return, has adopted a policy favoured by the traditional left as one of the benchmark promises of his campaign: raising the minimum hourly wage from €9.50 (£8.15) to €12 (£10.30) within the first year.
The policy would only affect 1.4 million people, and may not speak of his deepest convictions. “The traditional pitch of Scholz’s centrist wing was to redefine social justice as social mobility,” said Anke Hassel, a professor of public policy at the Hertie School in Berlin.
“Rather than the state only providing a safety net, the narrative was that it would help people move up through education,” said Hassel. “The SPD’s current pitch is more conciliatory: we’ll make sure that those who can’t move up won’t be left out in the cold.”
But promises such as the €12 minimum wage and a new 1% wealth tax have also given the centre-left campaign the kind of memorable takeaways that the CDU has so far lacked. Social Democrats insiders say bolstering Germany’s social safety net is popular with voters – the problem is that Angela Merkel has over the last 16 years taken the credit for such policies developed by the SPD.
To emerge as the direct or indirect winner after the vote in September, Scholz will need to convince swing voters that he not only cares for the left-behind but also understands the needs of Europe’s largest economy. “The CDU understands nothing of the economy,” he boomed with uncharacteristic volume from the stage in the Tempelhof district of Berlin last week.
As a man who has hardly challenged German fiscal orthodoxy during his four-year stint at the finance ministry, Scholz may be more up to that job than his rival: polls suggest he is the favourite choice for chancellor even among voters of the FDP, which is socially liberal but fiscally conservative.
“There used to be a prejudice amongst the German electorate that the Social Democrats couldn’t be trusted with money,” said Neugebauer. “Scholz has definitely reduced his party’s reputation for profligacy.”
And yet survey after survey has shown that most voters still trust Merkel’s CDU best to handle the economy and thus guarantee their financial wellbeing.
“At the moment, Scholz may look like the one-eyed among the blind,” said Neugebauer. “But in Germany, voting behaviour is traditionally less determined by personalities rather than parties.”