They are junior partners in the ever more fractious coalition that is headed by Chancellor Merkel and are losing ground on both sides: to the Christian Democrats in the mad scramble for that fabled "centre ground" and to Die Linke, the new left-wing party formed by Oskar Lafontaine.
The Social-Democrats would like to claim that they are the ones who have started those economic reforms that Germany badly needs but, in fact, they have been holding back the Christian Democrats, or so it seems as the reforms have been very slow, indeed.
On the other hand, they are worried that they will lose many of their traditional voters who would like to roll back the few reforms that somehow sneaked through and restore those very generous welfare provisions, which will be badly needed as unemployment will start rocketing up again.
So they have chosen a new leader to challenge Chancellor Merkel in the forthcoming election. Well, he is not that new, being the foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Chancellor Schröder’s former Chief of Staff but he is new as a leader and, of course, he has never stood for a public office before.
They have also selected a new party chairman, also another old Schröder hand, Franz Müntering. It is a little hard to work out why the Social-Democrats should want to go back to the Schröder veterans, as the man himself is deeply unpopular with the left, who see him as a traitor for introducing those reforms. From the foreign policy point of view, the Schröderites are linked to that old and somewhat desperate anti-Americanism trotted out in order to win elections. It worked once but not the second time.
As Mr Walker’s article, which can be read only by internet subscribers, puts it:
The two parties together used to enjoy the support of over 80% of German voters. Opinion polls currently put the Christian Democrats on about 36% and the Social Democrats on only 25%. Ms Merkel has strong personal approval ratings but her party is short of the roughly 40% she would need to govern without the Social Democrats.Of course she could always try to form a coalition with one of the other parties but, at present the numbers are against her doing that.
The WSJE editorial on the subject, to which I can link, makes one or two interesting points. It is not entirely impressed by Herr Steinmeier’s personal popularity, which easily outpaces that of his party:
Social Democrats are trawling for voters, too. Mr. Steinmeier's nomination was partly driven by polls showing him to be far more popular than Kurt Beck, the hapless party head who resigned yesterday to be replaced by former party leader Franz Müntefering. Yet it is possible that Mr. Steinmeier's popularity may have more to do with his office than with his persona. Foreign ministers always enjoy high approval ratings in Germany, because they look so statesmanlike by touring the world while avoiding controversial positions. Be it Iran's race toward nuclear arms or Russian aggression, Mr. Steinmeier, like his ministerial predecessors, advises finding a "diplomatic solution" -- always a popular panacea in pacifist Germany.On the other hand, we have recently seen not just aggressive Russian use of its energy resources to go beyond trade deals and to try to interfere with other countries' politics but an invasion by Russia of a neighbouring state. Even "pacifist" Germany might start worrying about that.
Chancellor Merkel certainly thinks so and is possibly realigning the political scene in preparation for the election, which does not have to be as late as September 2009.
His [Stenmeier's] nomination may embolden Mrs. Merkel to highlight her Atlanticist and economic-reform instincts. Both were casualties of the last elections's inconclusive results, which forced Germany's two major parties, usually opponents, into a loveless coalition. The election campaign may give Mrs. Merkel an opportunity to remind voters what sort of foreign and economic policy the Christian Democrats would pursue if they were not held back by the so-called grand coalition with the Social Democrats.We have mentioned something about this before.
Perhaps in anticipation of yesterday's nomination, the Chancellor fired a first broadside Friday by rejecting the idea of retiring all nuclear power plants. That plan was the brainchild of the previous Social Democratic-Green government. With high energy prices and a resurgent Russia, Mrs. Merkel is now questioning whether phasing out a key domestic energy source is such a smart idea. This may play well with voters.
German politics might become quite interesting in the next few months.