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ANALYSIS German election plunges Social Democrats into crisis By Andrew McCathie, dpa

By our dpa-correspondent and Europe Online    auf Facebook posten  Auf Twitter posten  
Once a model for centre-left parties around the world, Germany‘s Social Democrats have emerged as the major loser in Sunday‘s elections. The search for a new identity begins now.

Berlin (dpa) - Germany‘s Social Democrats (SPD) have plunged into a crisis, raising the prospects of a shakeout on the left of the country‘s politics as it attempts to forge a new identity after a traumatic loss in Sunday‘s national election.

The vote for Europe‘s oldest social democratic party crashed to an historic low of just 20.8 per cent, according to projections published by public broadcasters four hours after polls closed.

The result was "difficult and bitter," said party leader Martin Schulz, standing in the party‘s Berlin headquarters surrounded by grim-faced SPD leaders.

"It‘s perfectly clear that the electorate has directed us to go into opposition," Schulz said, noting that he plans to remain party leader. The SPD served as the junior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s conservative-led coalition for the last four years.

Once a model for social democratic parties around the world, the SPD has also come under fire from critics for running a campaign focused largely on a call for social justice at a time of solid economic growth, a pickup in wages and record low unemployment.

Instead, they argued the SPD, which was founded 154 years ago, should have also emphasized plans for innovation and digitalization that are shaping the German economy.

"The SPD has never won an election campaign based on social justice," said Manfred Guellner, who heads up the Berlin-based pollsters Forsa.

Moreover, the SPD failed to profit from Merkel‘s political weakness - an electoral backlash against her generous refugee stance - something from which they could scarcely benefit as a member of the Merkel government.

Western social democratic parties have struggled to find their footing in the new political world that has unfolded in recent years. With manufacturing jobs disappearing, previously solid party loyalties are declining and the role of unions diminishing.

Underlining the SPD‘s problems has been the drift in votes from the party to the new right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), support for which has surged as a result of Merkel‘s decision two years ago to open the nation‘s border to about one million refugees.

About 10 per cent of people casting a vote for the AfD on Sunday told pollsters they had backed the SPD in the last election in 2013.

As a result, the AfD became the first major right-wing party to enter the national parliament since World War II, with a bigger-than-forecast 13.2 per cent of the vote, according to ZDF projections.

There is little doubt the way ahead for the SPD is cloudy.

The SPD started the year on a high note enjoying a surge in support after nominating Schulz in January as its new chief to spearhead the party‘s campaign to end Merkel‘s 12-year rule.

Schulz‘s nomination drove support for the SPD in early March up to 32 per cent - almost neck and neck at the time with Merkel‘s conservative Christian Democrats and their Bavarian-based Christian Social Union allies.

Back then, as a former European Parliament president, Schulz was seen by German voters as a new face on a political stage of established actors.

But by March the "Schulz train," as the media dubbed the SPD leader‘s bid for chancellor, seemed to be already running out of steam, with support for the party slumping.

Now it has to recast its political identity by going into opposition and lick its wounds after being in coalitions for 15 of the past 19 years.

Like other social democratic parties, the SPD has battled to bridge the differences between the party‘s traditional wing and the party‘s modernizers, who push liberal economics and tough welfare and labour market reforms that risked rebounding on their supporters.

Indeed, Schulz‘s poll numbers initially rose after he took aim at former SPD chancellor Gerhard Schroeder‘s hated welfare- and labour-reform agenda, which had forced some critics to the hard-left Die Linke (The Left) party.

In the 2002 election, the vote for the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the precursor to Die Linke, stood at just 4 per cent before Schroeder launched his reform agenda. On Sunday, the Die Linke scored 9 per cent of the vote.

As a result, the SPD‘s future could lie in trying to reach out to the left-wing or traditional social democratic supporters who have fled to other parties like Die Linke, which has its roots in former East Germany‘s communist party.

But Die Linke‘s East German background - as well as the party‘s hard-line programme, which includes abolishing NATO and taxing the rich - have made it unpopular in the western part of the nation and, for the moment, ruled out the SPD forging any alliance with the party.

This has also probably ruled out the SPD lurching to the left, along the lines of the British Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn.

Teaming up with Die Linke "is not politically possible" said political analyst Oskar Niedermayer from Berlin‘s Free University.


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