Germany’s Social Democrats have chosen a little-known pair of left-wingers to lead the party out of its slump, in a vote that will send shockwaves through the country’s political system and could hasten the demise of chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition.
Ending a hard-fought leadership race that included two rounds of voting by rank-and-file members, Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken emerged with 53 per cent of the vote.
They defeated the centrist team of Olaf Scholz, the finance minister, and Klara Geywitz, a regional politician from eastern Germany, who won backing from just 45 per cent of the party base.
The result, announced in Berlin on Saturday evening, deals a potentially severe blow to the grand coalition between the SPD and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Mr Scholz and Ms Geywitz had made clear throughout their campaign that they wanted to keep the SPD inside the government coalition, arguing that a break-up at this stage would be damaging to country and party.
Their rivals struck a more critical note, with Ms Esken in particular suggesting that it was time to leave the coalition. She called repeatedly for a renegotiation of the 2018 coalition treaty on issues such as government spending and climate change policy — a demand that Ms Merkel’s conservative bloc has made clear it will not accept.
Should the SPD decide to leave the coalition, the chancellor has the option of leading a minority government, or she could try to form a new coalition with smaller opposition parties. An early election is another possibility.
The future of the coalition is likely to be the subject of fierce discussion — and a formal vote — at an SPD party congress in Berlin next week.
Speaking after the result was announced, Mr Walter-Borjans sought to strike a conciliatory tone: “We are very much aware that this is not a question of victory or defeat. This is about holding together this wonderful Social Democratic party — and to bring it back together again where it has already split.”
The new leaders won immediate backing from the losing team. “The SPD has taken a decision. That decision means we now have a new party leadership, and everyone must stand behind them,” Mr Scholz said.
Several leaders from Ms Merkel’s conservative bloc offered their congratulations to the new leadership, but also signalled their opposition to reopening the coalition treaty. Paul Ziemiak, the secretary-general of the Christian Democratic Union said there was no reason to call into doubt the “basis” of the coalition in response to Saturday’s vote.
Hans Michelbach, a senior leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union, the sister party of Ms Merkel’s CDU, said: “The SPD is deeply divided and will disintegrate further.”
It is unclear whether one of the two new co-leaders will also stand as the SPD candidate in the forthcoming general election. Neither Ms Walter-Borjans nor Ms Esken have the national profile that Mr Scholz has built up in recent years, or his record of winning elections at the regional level.
The party in any case faces an uphill struggle to close the yawning gap that has opened up between the SPD and its political rivals. Most surveys predict the SPD would win just 14 per cent of the vote if an election were held now — behind the Christian Democrats and the Green party.
The election ends a protracted period of political drift in the SPD, which has been without a leader since Andrea Nahles resigned in frustration six months ago. Like several of her predecessors, Ms Nahles was worn down by a poor election results and bitter infighting.
The leadership contest was coloured from the start by a struggle over the SPD’s political direction and strategic outlook. The party’s leftwing has long argued that the SPD needs to break with Ms Merkel at the earliest opportunity, and try to recover and rebuild in opposition. Critics of Mr Scholz’s centrists course believe the party’s political profile has become increasingly hard to distinguish from that of the chancellor’s centre-right bloc, leaving rivals like the Greens to scoop up traditional SPD voters.